Archive for April, 2012

Evgeny Kissin (again)

I am happy to report that I have attended my last ever Evgeny Kissin recital. We have already purchased our season tickets for next year and he is scheduled to play, but fortunately Chicago’s Symphony Center has a generous swap policy that we will be taking advantage of. I took this decision at the end of  his recital this afternoon, which must count as one of the most unpleasant I have ever endured. One of the pieces on the program, the Sonata by Samuel Barber, is meant to be percussive, but I don’t think the composer could ever have imagined that it would be pounded into submission as it was this afternoon. By the end, I felt like a slab of tenderized meat ready to be thrown in the frying pan. I felt sorry for the piano every time I saw Kissin raising his shoulders, knowing the abuse it was about to suffer. Of course, it wasn’t all loud and fast. Chopin’s B-minor sonata has many quiet passages and Kissin is capable of playing softly. But he seemed incapable this afternoon of shaping a phrase with tenderness or affection and was forever impatient to move on to the next bombastic excess. He also played with scarcely a pause between any of the movements; this was a man with a mission, or perhaps a plane to catch.

I always try to be fair, so I should point out that the sell-out audience responded with enthusiasm and multiple standing ovations. I saw one or two others sitting on their hands, but we were in a distinct minority. I guess star power is difficult to resist. I should also add that one of his encores, Beethoven’s variations on a theme from his “Ruins Of Athens”, was genuinely enjoyable, full of the wit and lightness of touch that was singularly lacking in the preceding recital. However, I don’t think that is enough to bring me back for more.





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Mitsuko Uchida

mitsuko-uchidaA few years ago, I read an article by a journalist who had joined a tour of a piano museum in England, probably some place like Finchcocks. They had been joined by a Japanese pianist, who enthusiastically flitted from one historical instrument to another, demonstrating the unique character of each with dazzling virtuosity. At the end of the tour, one of the visitors was overheard saying, “That Mitsubishi girl is a real corker.” It may have sounded like something that Ginger would say to Biggles (including the whiff of imperial condescension), but he wasn’t wrong. The Mitsubishi girl was Mitsuko Uchida, one of the foremost pianists of her generation. Having recently heard her at a post-concert reception preventing her host from getting a word in edgeways as she effusively confessed her passion for  Schubert, I expect the tour was extremely entertaining and rather exhausting.

The reception followed a recital in Chicago’s Symphony Center, which Mitsuko Uchida devoted to Schubert’s final three piano sonatas. They were all written in a very short space of time just a few months before his death. In spite of that, they are strongly contrasted and form a compelling psychological journey for someone struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. In the C-minor, D958, there is a pervasive sense of anxiety, even dread, culminating in the nightmare gallop of the finale, which can be quite terrifying in the best performances. The A-major, D959, is quite different, full of music of great lyrical warmth that nevertheless surrounds an emotionally drained slow movement containing the clearest depiction of a nervous breakdown in all music. The final sonata, the C-major, D960, seems to suggest that Schubert was able to achieve some degree of acceptance, if still tinged with regret and resignation. The serenity of the first movement is especially moving knowing the emotional turmoil of the earlier sonatas and how hard it was for Schubert to achieve a sense of peace.

The program therefore makes sense, but it still takes a formidable pianist to cover the entire emotional range with equal conviction. Uchida started well. Wearing a striking combination of scarlet and black, held together by a large gold sash, she tensed suddenly as she sat down and immediately launched into the defiant opening chords of the C-minor. She had no problems conveying the nervous energy of a piece in which Schubert seemed to develop a new musical language of anxiety, stark in texture with the chromatic bass providing an unsettling undercurrent even in the more lyrical passages. I found some of her musical decisions unconvincing, such as prolonged bass notes at the end of the opening theme and the rushed phrasing of the slow-movement melody, but the playing was appropriately urgent and dramatic. The last movement was perhaps too frenetic and, surprisingly for someone of her ability, a little frayed at the edges technically – at one point, she changed a minor chord into major, a very Schubertian mistake – but thrilling none-the-less.

I was less convinced that she understood the psychology of the A-major sonata. The first movement contains some of his most heart-stoppingly beautiful music, with passages of almost aching tenderness. Time and again, Uchida glossed over these moments, playing musically but without emotional awareness. For example, Schubert ends the exposition with softly repeating notes, overlapping in different registers, as if gently echoing past contentment. But Uchida chose to strike them percussively, as if they were bells summoning us to lunch. The biggest shock came moments later at the start of the development section. I first heard this passage in one of Alfred Brendel’s masterclasses on the South Bank, and was transfixed by the sense of breathless anticipation it conveys, a sense of child-like excitement expressed in increasingly elaborate scale passages over gently pulsing chords. Or at least, they are normally gently pulsing. Uchida launched into this section with brightly clipped accompaniment as if depicting a sleigh ride, more Lieutenant Kijé than Schubert, the scales providing so much empty glitter on top.

The slow movement was much better. She chose to play the bass notes at the start of each desolate bar without pedal, not my preference but valid none-the-less. It has the effect of draining the music of all sense of hope, as if Schubert were already in an insane asylum staring at blank white walls. Uchida was unusually slow to build up the tension in the central section, which made the eventual collapse even more dramatic and moving. It was therefore all the more disconcerting when, at the start of the Scherzo, Uchida switched on a bright smile like a light bulb, as if to say happy days are here again. There surely has to be a sense of transition to the forced gaiety of this movement. After all, there is a savage descending scale half-way through, a vicious slash of a knife briefly revealing how thin this veneer of cheeriness really is. I can’t help feeling, and this may be unfair, that Uchida tends to see things in black and white – some passages are sad, others happy – and that she isn’t really comfortable with the psychological ambiguities that are at the heart of all Schubert’s music, the pain beneath the smile. Nevertheless, she really can play beautifully and the last movement was a serene stream of lyricism from start to finish.

The same could be said of the final sonata. Although there is still the sense of regret that pervades all of Schubert’s mature works, there is also a sense of peace, or coming to terms with the contradictions of life. There is less of a psychological journey in this music, so it was very well suited to Uchida’s sensitive musicality. For example, she played the opening chordal theme with an extraordinarily hushed intensity and restrained beauty. My only complaint was that she chose to repeat the exposition, which requires playing one of the most grotesque transitions that Schubert ever wrote. Perhaps it is meant to make the return to the opening theme seem even more serene, but whatever his motives for writing these jerky convulsions, I can happily live without them.

There was a period when Schubert’s sonatas were not often played – the musical establishment considered them structurally naïve, even amateur, compared to the intellectual rigour of Beethoven. Those days are long gone thanks to his champions like Artur Schnabel and Alfred Brendel. There have been several notable performances during last two seasons at Chicago’s Symphony Center, including Paul Lewis’ ongoing cycle, and the BBC just devoted a whole week to Schubert, with several recitals of his piano works by luminaries such as Andras Schiff, Imogen Cooper, and Elizabeth Leonskaja. The poignancy of his music, his ability to express joy and an awareness of its transience at the same time, seems to get beneath the skin of those of us living in a more cynical age, perhaps to a greater extent than the more melodramatic romantics that followed him. I am pleased that Mitsuko Uchida gave me another opportunity to embark again on this particular musical odyssey, even if I wasn’t always convinced by the paths she chose.

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