Monday, April 3, 2017

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Performs Mozart, Widmann and Schumann

On Thursday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear a solo recital by the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida.  The program featured well known pieces by Mozart and Schumann as well as the New York premiere of a new work by the German composer/clarientist Jörg Widmann that had been co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and written expressly for Ms. Uchida.

The program opened with Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 (1788), commonly known as the Sonate facile since Mozart had marked it in his catalog as "for beginners" and used it primarily as a pedagogical tool.  It does not follow from Mozart's description, however, that the work is simplistic or any less deserving of respect than the composer's other sonatas.  Like any late work by Mozart, it possesses more than its share of musical ideas.  In the first movement, for example, Mozart anticipates Schubert by having the recapitulation begin in the subdominant key (F major).

The next work on the program was Schumann's Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838).  The 1830's were Schumann's heyday as a composer of solo piano works as he tried his utmost to impress his future wife, the virtuoso performer Clara Wieck.  Kreisleriana was only one of several such compositions he produced during this period, but it is among the most important and Schumann himself considered it his finest in this genre.  The title is taken from the character Johannes Kreisler who appeared in several stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a highly imaginative writer of fantastic stories as well as an extremely perceptive music critic.  As depicted by Hoffmann, Kreisler was moody to the point of bipolarity and, though a musical genius, not particularly successful through the faults of his character.  There can't be any doubt that Schumann saw a great deal of himself in Kreisler, just as Hoffman had, and the music he wrote in this piece accordingly swings back and forth wildly in mood.  While on the one hand the use of the Kreisler motif allowed Schumann the freedom to place side by side movements that otherwise would have been too different in character to fit easily together, on the other hand the juxtaposition of these same dissimilar sections can be viewed as an early portent of psychological problems that were to plague Schumann sixteen years later and lead to his complete mental collapse.

After intermission, the program resumed with Widmann's Sonatina facile (2016).  The piece takes as its point of departure, of course, the Mozart sonata played in the first half of the recital.  And there are definite correspondences, such as the fact that each of the three movements - allegro, andante, rondo -has its counterpart in the earlier piece.  But here the resemblance is more ironic than literal.  In fact, Mr. Widmann often seems to be deliberately distancing himself as far as possible from the source of his inspiration rather than attempting to find parallels within it.  There is little chance a listener could confuse this dissonant work with Mozart's K. 545.  In the end, the Mozart acts as little more than an excuse for an imaginative flight of fancy.  Despite the structural similarities, Widmann's work has to be considered on its own merits and at times the fifteen minute piece seemed to struggle to find its own identity.

The final work on the program was Schumann's Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 (1836), the piece I've always considered the composer's single greatest work for solo piano.  I'm certainly not alone in that evaluation - critics now almost universally agree that this is one of the greatest products of the Romantic era.  This consensus is all the more remarkable when one bears in mind the work's convoluted history.  Schumann began by composing a short piece, entitled Ruines, that he intended as still another tribute to his beloved Clara.  Appropriately enough, it contained a quotation from Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, the 1816 song cycle in which the master expressed with unparalleled intensity his longing for his distant beloved.  It was only afterwards, when solicited for a contribution to a planned memorial to Beethoven in his hometown of Bonn, that Schumann  decided to write a longer work of which Ruines would ultimately become the first movement.  The resulting collage was not initially a success and the Fantasie was rejected by two publishers before Schumann arrived at a final version that incorporated a number of revisions. Part of the problem may have been the work's dissimilarity to the traditional Classical piano sonata. One important difference was the unusual placement of the adagio as the final movement. But this movement, marked Langsam getragen, durchweg leise zu halten ("Slow and solemn; to be kept soft throughout"), is by far the strongest of the three and provides a perfect hushed ending to the work.

Mitsuko Uchida is quite simply one of the finest pianists now active.  I've always felt her forte to be the works of Mozart and Schubert, and her choice of the Sonate facile to open the recital set the tone perfectly for the remainder of the evening.  She managed to find depths of expression in this simple piece of which I'd never previously been aware.  Likewise, Ms. Uchida's interpretations of the two Schumann works. particularly the Fantasie, were flawless and deeply satisfying.  This was probably the best recital I've attended this season.

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