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Prometheus Unbound

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/14/2009 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109 – Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110 – Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111

Mitsuko Uchida (Piano)

M. Uchida(© Julien Jourdes)

Halfway through the whirlwind second movement of Beethoven’s E Major Sonata, Misuko Uchida played eight pinaissimo measures with an almost jolting change of pace. The sounds were almost Slavic, almost like church bells in the treble clef. And then they were gone, and Ms. Uchida continued that whizzing pace.

Moments like these would be recalled long after this unique recital by one of the world’s most unique pianists. It was unique because the pianist played all three of Beethoven’s last sonatas without a single interval. (The request for silence between the sonatas was, sadly, not observed.) But then, Ms. Uchida has gone to great musical and historical lengths explaining why these three form “one great work”.

Ms. Uchida is unique not because of any Gould-like idiosyncrasies, but because of the depth with which she approaches a composer. She began her career with Mozart and Schubert, where her European training made her one of the world’s great artists. After this, she studied and performed the second Austrian school of composers: Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez.

When she chose “do” Beethoven, Ms. Uchida eschewed the popular middle sonatas and plunged full steam ahead into the deepest blackest grottos of the last sonatas, those enigmatic worlds of rarefied emotions which destroyed forever the Classical ideal. Like a Zen student, she didn’t play around looking for enlightenment, but went directly for the satori core.

Rarefied they may be, but Ms. Uchida’s probing intelligence hardly searched for epiphanies in this music. Judging by last night’s concert, these works merged a faultless technique (her trills are the most brilliant in the business!) with poetry. Above all, she has the intellect and maturity to understand that Beethoven was not simply inspired. His inspiration was the seed of an consistently organic art.

Thus, the beginning of Opus 109 could be almost prosaic here. But its growth came with increasing metrical freedom with a combination of legato and chordal fullness until the final unexpected silent closing bass chord.
That aforementioned prestissimo was played with an unnerving presto tempo, though it did give away to the eight-measure bell interlude. The final variations had that splendid technique, the staccato force and journey to the final theme repeat.

Opus 110 had that same organic trip. I couldn’t quite adjust to the childish left hand at the beginning, but that probably was a Beethoven red herring to trick pianists into thinking it was easy. Like the opening of Opus 109, the opening is an ingenuous song, and Ms. Uchida did make it sing. Just as she made the scherzo define the gruff, funny mighty Beethoven in a naughty mood. Was I wrong, or did she emphasize those strange out-of-place places in the gorgeous finale? I could detect a jagged precursor of Schoenberg at his most difficult as she essayed the tenuous measures after the first fugue. But it was still a stunning performance.

The final sonata, the one which Thomas Mann called “vast, strange, extravagantly magnificent” is also humorous, wild, and puzzling. And here Ms. Uchida showed how her technique led to a lovely, if not singular reading. Any pianist would have to cry hearing her tapered gradations on a single chord, using virtually no pedal. (Pianos aren’t supposed to do those things) Ms. Uchida calls the gentle turns of phrase here “celestial arabesques”, but she also has that sheer muscle power which turns the variations into smoking Promethean journeys as well.
The finishing two measures, where Beethoven has written six contradictory directions, ended with the pianissimo chord in the bass, as did Opus 109. And for once, the audience didn’t cheer. They waited, perhaps a minute, before the applause.

Some of us might not have been transported to Zen’s satori enlightenment by the complete concert. But the journey, fascinating, surprising generated musical scenery which flew close to heaven, descended close to hell, but was always of Ms. Uchida’s manifestly beloved earth.

Harry Rolnick



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