on 8 September 2013
I've been a fan of Mitsuko Uchida ever since buying her complete Mozart Piano Sonata recordings several years ago, and since then she has never disappointed. When it comes to Mozart and Schubert, there are few pianists who can match her, though this was the first time I had heard her play Schumann. All the works on this disc are played wonderfully, though the highlight is of course the Sonata in G Minor which is sublime.
The recording quality of the disc is absolutely superb - I have been listening to it on my new Shure E240 earphones and it is an incredible experience! The piano has a very warm sound with a slight reverb that seems to wrap you up while not obscuring the clarity of the notes and Uchida has always practised amazingly clear and precise sustain pedalling. The dynamics in sound are spot-on, you feel as if the piano is in the same room. Great job.
Of the great Romantic composers Schumann seems to be the one Mitsuko Uchida has the greatest affinity with; she has recorded the Chopin sonatas 2 and 3 but very little else, and Liszt doesn't feature at all, while I remember her saying Rachmaninov held no appeal for her. But Schumann's quixotic nature clearly strikes a chord, and here she reprises all three of the works she played at London's Festival Hall earlier this year, including the G minor Sonata op. 22 and Gesange der Fruhe, which made such an indelible impression of vibrant intimacy across that huge space. Here she starts with a vividly characterised Waldszenen, where in the opening number you have the impression every note is being given a particular moulding, and nothing is allowed just to go its own way. Initially I found it a bit mannered, especially after the more straightforward playing of Martin Helmchen on his recent recording, which I am totally sold on. But with repeated hearing Uchida starts to sound very persuasive indeed, and you start to see these pieces as fully deserving to stand alongside the earlier sets like Carnaval or the Davidsbundlertanze. The Vogel als Prophet is particularly exquisitely voiced to bring out its scrunching discords, but without recourse to savagery. The Gesange der Fruhe are a late, elusive masterpiece that Uchida makes into a visionary utterance, a final statement from the depths of Schumann's soul as he struggled with the encroaching darkness.
But the heart of the recital is probably the Sonata, which she reveals with an unprecedented tenderness and fluidity. The approach I mentioned in relation to the opening number of the Waldszenen here comes triumphantly into its own from the first bar, with Uchida shaping every turn of the music with a fantastic emotional volatility and subtlety. It emerges as an absolute masterpiece, the last movement a whirlwind storm before the ruminative start of the op. 133. Frankly I've never heard it sound quite this good. The disc is surely one of her most outstanding, bringing into new focus three great works that have remained relatively sidelined, in the most alluring sound imaginable. Uchida herself looks like a portrait from the Dutch Golden Age on the cover, as soulful and understated as a Rembrandt but with the domestic backdrop of something more German from Schumann's own time.
on 19 December 2013
As I age, Schumann increasingly means more to me than Brahms. They are both geniuses. Perhaps it's the Walter Mitty in me that longs for a more fiery existence. At the heart of my love for Schumann is the first movement of Kinderszenen - Of Strange Lands and People: to me, it's as inexplicable as the Virgin of the Rocks or Bach's First Prelude from the Well Tempered Klavier. It has no bottom.
While I am a big admirer of Uchida's earliest work - Mozart's piano sonatas - I have never been tempted to chase her down in wider repertoire such as Beethoven or Schubert. I enjoyed her previous foray in Schumann - Davidbundlertanze and the Fantasie - even if her account of the latter is somewhat virginal; nor have I been compelled to revisit these accounts thereafter.
As to these new performances, I enjoy her accounts of the Opus 22 and 82. No-one is going to pretend that the G Minor Sonata is Schumann's greatest work: Uchida does as well as anyone at disguising its lack of thematic development and rickety construction. I adore Waldszenen. Just as Blake urged us "to see a World in a Grain of Sand," its last movement - Abschied - is more eloquent than any number of valedictory symphonies (nor does it feature cow-bells or hammer-blows of fate). Again, Uchida has its measure with the possible exception of Verrufene Stelle (which so spooked Clara in the years following her husband's Passion): it could be more malignant.
The shortcoming here, in my cheap opinion, is her traversal of Gesänge der Frühe. It was written in October 1853, some four months before "Voices of Angels" compelled Schumann to throw himself into the Rhine in search of oblivion. As Auden tells us, "We are lived by powers we pretend to understand." Pollini imbues Opus 133 with an unearthly hue, portentous of fate and doom as if Schumann was already aware of the onset of night. It's eerie. I cannot hear that with Uchida; she tiptoes through the tulips with Tiny Tim.
Five stars or thereabouts for Opus 22 & 82; two less for Opus 133