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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Concert Review: The Fearless Academic

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mitsuko Uchida and friend. Photo by Geoffrey Scheid.
There is nothing conventional about Mitsuko Uchida. At this stage in her career, the reigning grand dame of the piano recital has eschewed the traditional recital format for long concerts that are meditative studies on the work of just one composer. Luckily for Carnegie Hall audiences  this season, that composer is Franz Peter Schubert, whose work she is revisiting at the conclusion of a two year journey through his piano sonatas.

On Saturday night, Ms. Uchida played the first of two concerts this season--albeit the second program scheduled. (Due to exhaustion, the artist was forced to postpone a planned April 30 appearance. That concert will now be held on June 18.) This concert explored three very different periods of Schubert's short career with three piano sonatas: the Op. 164 in A minor, the unfinished "Reliquie" Sonata and the culmination of his efforts in the genre: the four-movement Sonata in B flat, one of his last compositions.

Unlike many other composers who wrote extensively for the instrument, Schubert was not celebrated as a pianist in his lifetime. (According to friends and colleagues he was a fair talent but the life of a touring virtuoso was not for him.) His work takes the melodic gentility of Mozart and the urgency of Beethoven but strips away the wild, incisive qualities of the latter for a singing, lyric quality. This can bemuse and bewitch the unwary listener. Ms. Uchida's studied, intellectual approach restores much of the power to this music with her unwavering focus on the generation of long melodic lines, something these works have in common with the composer's writing for the human voice.

The A minor sonata has a sprightly, almost military air to it, with a cocky main theme expressed in staccato fashion. This leads to a gentle, flowing Andante, an idle tune for whistling through an idyllic countryside. It goes from simple repetitions to an increasingly rich series of variations, the melody stretched and contorted in ways that the unobservant listener might miss. The final Allegro, with its upward leap up the keyboard, led to more staccato rhythms and singing melodies for the right hand.

Some of Schubert's best projects were exercises in expanding the classical forms that, for whatever reason were left at his death in an incomplete, torso state. The best known of these is the Eighth, or "Unfinished" Symphony. Standing next to it is the "Reliquie" Sonata, also two movements of considerable size and weight. Although it premiered posthumously, this work anticipated the radical symphonic expansion of Schubert's own Great Symphony. Each of its two slow movements stretches the classical form to a great and almost unrecognizable proportion. In Ms Uchida's hands, these movements became vast forests for the listener to lose themselves in, slow, mysterious and fraught with constant peril.

That strategy of expansion of form continued in the B flat Major Sonata. The first movement of this work is a whopper, a huge formal sonata allegro written around what has become one of Schubert's most familiar and beloved themes. It is a movement marked "Molto Moderato" that takes each of its thematic ideas and wrings the maximum musical potential out of them in its lengthy development. The famous opening with its sighing theme had a gentle, tragic weight to it, a slow press on the senses into the dark inner world of the development. The less grim second subject offered some grains of comfort before the main theme returned with a steely determination.

This movement is half the length of this enormous 40-minute sonata, indicating Schubert's continued fascination with pushing boundaries in his very last works. (A similar expansion happens in the contemporaneous C Major String Quintet, which can easily hit the hour mark in a performance.) The three that follow are shorter, a slow Andante with storms under its surface, a lilting scherzo that transits into a gentle and lovely trio and a finale that uses the bell-like quality of the upper register of the piano to lull the listener through its obsessive examination of the simple rondo theme. Ms. Uchida finally exploded into a torrent for the final coda as if to say "that's enough" and trade all this introspection in for a round of wild, standing applause.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats