Great Pianists of the 20th Century - Mitsuko Uchida

Author: 
Richard Wigmore

Great Pianists of the 20th Century - Mitsuko Uchida

  • (10) Variations on 'Unser dummer Pöbel meint' by
  • Rondo
  • Sonata for Piano No. 18
  • Adagio
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 9
  • (12) Etudes
  • (3) Klavierstücke

It was as a Mozart player of uncommon finesse and sensibility that Mitsuko Uchida first made her mark. And it is no surprise that the first CD here is entirely given over to Mozart: his first great keyboard concerto, his last sonata, plus three of his finest shorter pieces, with all but the concerto recorded live (in superlative sound) at a Tokyo concert in 1991. Throughout the disc Uchida’s pellucid tone, the subtlety of her phrasing and colouring and her quicksilver response to changes of mood give delight. She floats and moulds the cantabile lines with the personal inflexions of a singer, as in the C minor Andante of the concerto (given an unusually elegiac, introspective reading) and the Adagio of the sonata; her textures are limpid, her passagework even and glistening (and delightfully puckish in the finale of the concerto); and she is acutely sensitive to, say, the mounting passion and urgency in the major-key sections of the A minor Rondo or the sinewy, athletic counterpoint in the outer movements of the sonata – compare Uchida’s sentient, highly-strung reading with that of Ingrid Haebler (Philips, see page 71) and you hear the difference between mere good taste and a real re-creative response to the music. At times, especially in the first movement of the concerto, I regretted Uchida’s tendency to taper phrase endings and shade away at climaxes at the expense of the music’s drive and sweep. Here and occasionally elsewhere, I found myself wishing for a slightly more direct, assertive manner. But there is no denying the grace, intelligence and poetic insight of all these performances, confirming a Mozartian of rare pedigree.
Uchida’s Gramophone Award-winning Debussy Etudes, rapturously acclaimed by DJF and others in these pages, hardly need a further plug from me. Hers is nerve-end playing of surpassing fantasy and refinement, minutely responsive to texture and colour. Listen, for instance, to the canto dolce marcato in ‘Pour les tierces’, etched with infinite delicacy (from 1'37''), or the torrent of sound she conjures in the closing bars; to the shimmering calm of the dolce e sostenuto opening of ‘Pour les sixtes’; the gossamer lightness of the following ‘Pour les huit doigts’; the airborne, scherzando grace – and freedom from the bar-line – of ‘Pour les notes repetees’; and the combination of incisiveness and elasticity in the final ‘Pour les accords’. Uchida’s virtuosity and elan are stunning, her tonal shading, especially in the softer dynamics, verging on the miraculous. As DJF remarked in his original review, these are readings that expand notions of Debussian style. The recording is exemplary in its clarity and warmth.
The second disc is completed by Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11, of Schoenberg, whose piano works Uchida likes to set off against Schubert sonatas in her concert programmes. The benchmark recording in these elusive, densely concentrated works, hovering on (and in the third piece descending beyond) the brink of atonality, has long been Pollini. But Uchida approaches him in intellectual mastery and range of tone colour, and surpasses him in impulsiveness and romantic expressiveness. The snatches of yearning lyricism in Nos. 1 and 2 are exquisitely sung, the Mahlerian trilling climax of No. 2 (from 4'09'') awesome in its intensity, the violent turmoil of No. 3 disturbingly realized, with a huge spectrum of dynamics. Again, the recorded sound is first-rate. Any comprehensive survey of Uchida’s art would include her questing, deeply considered Schubert, perhaps also some Schumann and Chopin. Still, what we have here is a fair tribute to one of the most individual and searching pianists of her generation. '

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