Monday, March 5, 2018

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Performs Schubert

On Friday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida perform the first of two all-Schubert recitals she'll be giving this season.  It was a full evening that featured one early sonata followed by two from a later period.

The program began with Schubert's Piano Sonata in B Major, D. 575 (1817).  Like many of Schubert's works, this piece, written when the composser was only 20 years old, was published posthumously.  Indeed, it might not have been published at all if Schubert's friend Alben Stadler had not made a copy of the autograph, now lost, so that it could be performed by a young Austrian pianist named Josephine von Koller to whom Schubert later dedicated the Piano Sonata in A major, D. 664.  The D. 575 is often regarded as the composer's first "mature" sonata, but what's interesting is that when one looks at the Wikipedia list of Schubert's works for solo piano it becomes immediately apparent that the genre itself was one that he had only recently taken up.  According to this source, the Sonata in E major, D. 157, listed there as No. 1, had been completed only two years earlier in 1815.  Significantly, that work is considered unfinished, leading one to conjecture that the composer had been dissatisfied with it and put it aside.  Over the next two years Schubert then composed no fewer than ten more piano sonatas with the D. 575 listed as No. 11.  It's apparent that Schubert was struggling mightily with the very concept of the sonata, a form that could not very well be ignored by any aspiring composer after Beethoven had carried it to such masterful heights.  While the D. 575 may be considered a turning point, if only because this was the first to be cast in four movements, it still appears awkward in places, particularly in the opening allegro that skips from key to key as if Schubert were unable to make up his mind where he intended to go.  In the end, it is most significant for the glimpse it provides the listener of a great composer at the start of his career struggling to attain the  mastery he displayed in the later sonatas.

The next work was the Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 845 (1825).  Composed eight years after the D. 575, the D. 845 is a world away in terms of accomplishment.  Here Schubert reveals his mastery of the same form with which he had earlier struggled.  This was the first of the composer's sonatas to be published during his lifetime, an event that led to a reevaluation of his abilities among his contemporaries.  Previously considered only a composer (albeit a great one) of lieder, Schubert was now seen to be an important composer of instrumental music as well.  Although it's always tempting to see in Schubert's late works intimations of his own mortality - he had only three more years to live - there is some basis for it in the present composition.  As in many works from this period, there is a strong sense of melancholy in the theme and variations that make up the second movement.  Even more to the point, the sonata's opening theme quotes Schubert's D. 842, Totengräbers Heimweh ("The Gravedigger's Lament"), whose mournful text by Craigher de Jachelutta would have been depressing enough to anyone, let alone a young man who knew already that his time was limited.

After intermission, the recital concluded with the Piano Sonata in D Major, D. 850 (1825).  This sonata, the second to be published during Schubert's lifetime, was composed while on summer holiday in the spa resort of Gastein, in the company of the well known singer Johann Michael Vogl (which raises the question why Schubert was composing a sonata at all rather than more lieder for his friend to sing).  In contrast to the more introspective D. 845, the D. 850 is so exuberant a work that on hearing it one is easily able to imagine the Alpine splendor surrounding Schubert when he wrote it.  The work was dedicated not to Vogl but to Karl Maria von Bocklet, a close friend and virtuoso pianist who would later premiere both Schubert's piano trios.  No doubt it was the expectation of having his work performed by so talented a musician that led Schubert to make the D. 850 so technically demanding.

I've always thought Ms. Uchida's forte to be the works of Mozart and Schubert, and I was only reinforced in this belief by Friday evening's recital.  She showed complete mastery at the keyboard throughtout her performance, and it's doubtful the audience will soon hear again such impressive interpretations of Schubert's piano works as they encountered here.

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