Top Ear

Uchida and Schumann: Waldszenen, Sonata No. 2, Gesänge der Frühe

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Uchida Schumann

Leonard Ip writes

I’ve always seen Uchida as an artist with an exceptional personal style (but I hesitated to use the word “idiosyncratic”). Her technique — the tool for musical expression — is of such proficiency it’s hard to level any criticism on her performances, leaving one the only choice to say that one’s view on the music differs from hers — her way with Mozart and Schubert tends to polarize listeners. Hence, after hearing her latest album of Schumann works, what I feel I can say is simply that Uchida makes a perfect match with Schumann.

Her unusual touches are audible from the very start of Waldszenen: sparse pedalling, staccato accompanying chords, pure finger-legato for the cantabile line, bringing out the gently rocking feeling by exquisite phrasing and occasional accents. I find this a perfect way to go along the quiet wonderment of the narrative. Uchida approached “Einsame Blumen” in a similar manner: non-legato for the “one-two-one-two” left hand accompaniment, finger-legato for two intertwining melodies in the right hand. The rise and fall of her lines gives a genuinely “lonely” character to the music that truly evokes the solitary and recurrent blossoming and wilting of a flower, deep in the forest and unseen by anyone. There are other great recordings of Waldszenen — Kempff, Richter etc. — that present the work in very different lights and Uchida, individual as she is, joins them in being the most moving.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 is the earliest composition among the three on this disc and has stronger formal and virtuosic elements. Uchida’s nearly mysophobic pianism lends great clarity to the dense and busy outer movements, but not without a clear and natural sense of phrasing and forward momentum — the very spontaneous rubato she takes at the beginning of the first few bars of the first movement is case in point. The slow movement transcends mere lyricism — the complete concentration and almost static state of the playing draw the listener in powerfully.

Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn) is one of Schumann’s very last compositions, its style inward and unstable. Brendel thus spoke of late Schumann in an interview with Martin Meyer on Neue Zürcher Zeitung, “The late piano works are small pieces. These late works always give the impression of pacing back and forth in a small room, unable to get out.” Uchida’s musicality receives its fullest exposure in these five small pieces. For comparison, I selected the first Song from two other outstanding recordings: Pollini (DG) and Anderszewski (Virgin Classics), and, in conclusion, came to an interesting analogy: Pollini is a narrator, his narrative generally faster and more flowing, his phrasing and expression cool and strongly logical (as usual, I can’t resist adding) – just like what we feel about a third-person narrative, basically. Anderszewski, on the other hand, is a thinker, his lines fine and slender, his tone translucent, exquisitely voiced, evoking the unceasing character of a philosopher’s questioning. Finally, Uchida – a meditator who slowly communes with herself as if dipping into sub-consciousness, with a tone that is luminous, warm and opaque to a certain degree. The fastidious tidiness, extreme softness and inner glow of her chords immediately transports the listener into Schumann’s dark and solitary sound world. An immediate switch to Andras Schiff’s recording (Teldec) shows Schiff on a conspicuously lower plane of operation — it lacks the spiritual strength of the three recordings above and merely hovers on the surface of the narrative.

In this day and age in which we constantly lament the absence of great artists, it’s really a fortune to have artists like Uchida around.

Schumann: Waldszenen, Piano Sonata No. 2, Gesänge der Frühe
Piano: Mitsuko Uchida
Decca 478 5393
DDD - 59:15

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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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