CD Review: Uchida plays Schumann

Mitsuko Uchida 2Much-anticipated release of Mitsuko Uchida’s Schumann CD displays exceptional musical understanding and command

Another CD of Schumann piano music! Released late in 2010, the Schumann bicentennial year, this recording just became available here this month. It’s undoubtedly the fruit of pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s concert activities during the past year

By Kevin Moore

The CD includes the Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6 and the Fantasie in C major, Op.17, two of Schumann’s greatest works. My previous review included Angela Hewitt’s new recording of Op.6 and Anton Kuerti’s of Op.17. Rich choices indeed!

Because Mitsuko Uchida is one of the world’s leading pianists, and one of the commercially-hyped “superstars” of the music world, the level of playing is a foregone conclusion. She is capable of doing whatever she chooses on the instrument. She first became well known for her wonderful Mozart series that included recordings of all 27 Piano Concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Tate as well as the complete Piano Sonatas. As a result she was at first viewed as a Mozart specialist. In fact, in the past few years she has held the formal position of Artist-in-Residence with the Cleveland Orchestra, during which she has performed the complete Mozart Piano Concertos conducting from the piano. This past year saw the first release in an evident series of recordings which included the Piano Concertos in A major, K.488 and C minor, K.491 with Uchida conducting from the piano. There is a new release coming out this month with the Piano Concertos in D minor, K.466 and Bb major, K.595.

But being typecast is not in Uchida’s nature. Her remarkable recording of the Chopin Sonatas in Bb minor and B minor changed a lot of attitudes. That was followed by her first recording of works by Schumann, including the Kreisleriana, Op.16 and Carnaval, Op.9. Then came her complete Schubert Piano Sonatas, performances of intensity and depth that immediately placed her among the greatest musicians ever to record those works.

Then there were the Debussy Etudes –– one of the most remarkable performances ever committed to disc. Then the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra. And Webern and Berg, and the Beethoven Concertos with Kurt Sanderling; and the last five Beethoven Piano Sonatas, etc., etc.

As if this weren’t enough she is also Co-Director of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont along with Richard Goode, who alternates summers as Director. And in 2009 she was anointed Dame Commander of the British Empire.

So the anticipation is great when a new recording by this marvelous artist becomes available. And no one will be disappointed with this one. These are obviously pieces close to her heart and she brings an exceptional musical understanding and keyboard command to the task.

The Davidsbundlertanze pieces are filled with imaginative touches, rich colors and vivid contrasts of texture and mood. These are colorful and deeply emotional pieces, among Schumann’s most varied and revealing, and she brings them to life.

If I have a few minor quibbles, it’s only because the playing is so fine throughout. She has a tendency to lose depth of tone in melodic lines when the dynamic level is low. Although that can create an intimate effect if heard up close, which of course you do on a recording like this, it still allows some confusion with surrounding lines. For a pianist who knows a piece in depth, those lines are clear in the mind, but may require more clarification for listeners who are not on such intimate terms with the music. When performing in a large hall, with the necessary projection of tone, this isn’t an issue. But in so many delicate, ethereal passages as there are in this work, a recording can present a problem.

And there are a couple of spots where her octaves have a clunky sound. Pianists almost always highlight one or the other of the notes in octaves passages because otherwise they can sound heavy and dull. And there is a spot or two where I wish she had let back on the octaves and colored them a bit more.

But having said all that, she does get to the heart of the piece. If it doesn’t convince me as thoroughly as classic performances by Cortot, Gieseking, Masselos, Ann Schein or Anton Kuerti, it’s certainly worthy of the comparison.

As for the great C major Fantasie, I have little other than praise for a deeply considered and masterfully played performance. This is one of the greatest works for piano in the entire 19th century. Rather appropriately, it’s dedicated to Franz Liszt –– who apparently played the piece only once. Liszt returned the favor a number of years later by dedicating his great Sonata in B minor to Robert Schumann. It’s interesting that two of the greatest Romantic works for piano have interlocking dedications.

The resonances with other music found in the Fantasie are deep and extensive. Originally conceived to raise money for a planned Beethoven monument in Bonn, it is filled with quotations from Beethoven –– raising hints of his song cycle An die ferne geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), the Emperor Concerto, the Seventh Symphony and the Piano Sonata in A major, Op.101. The song cycle reference is most touching because the piece, like most of Schumann’s works, was written for his beloved Clara Wieck and written at a time of enforced separation instigated by Clara’s father. The intense longing and delayed resolution of the opening of the first movement can be seen reasonably as a reflection of the composer’s personal situation.

Of course, it may be all too easy to over-romanticize the situation. When this first movement was written Clara was 16 years old, and Schumann was 26! And her father thought that he drank more than what
may be considered appropriate, and knew that Schumann had had several previous young lovers. And his daughter was rapidly becoming one of the most outstanding pianists in Europe at that time, her father having been her only teacher.

And yet that passion and romantic longing that pervades the Fantasie’s first movement is the essence of the piece. Technically, the opening dominant 9th chord never properly resolves until the end of the movement –– likely one thing that led Schumann to call it a Fantasie, although he clearly began with the idea of writing a “Grand Sonata.” And grand it is, indeed.

The second movement March is among the most difficult things in Schumann, and Uchida takes a moderate tempo yet infuses it with taught rhythmic control and clarity despite the thick, quite contrapuntal texture. The ending with its infamous and perilous leaps in each hand in opposite directions is done seriously and quite evidently with all the notes in place. Several famous pianists have recorded this piece with notes omitted and changes that ease the difficulty. In my opinion this isn’t warranted because it changes the sound of the end. As Uchida says in the interview disc, a “successful” public performance of this section is one where you only miss one note, but that it’s helpful because it reminds the listeners that it is indeed difficult! That reminds me of a similar remark by the great 19th century pianist and conductor, Hans van Bulow, who was known for his polished, accurate playing. He once told a friend that he occasionally played wrong notes to remind his listeners that what he was doing was difficult.

Uchida’s performance of the finale is one of the longest I’ve heard. Yet it’s also one of the most sublime. It simply floats in its own tranquil, serene world quite removed from this one. The two large climactic points are prepared with great care. The entire piece falls away and resolves perfectly to end on those three wonderful and consoling C major chords.

The recording quality is exemplary, as is the instrument. And that adds immensely to the pleasure of this album. In fact, just picking up this album you know that Decca has given Uchida the “star treatment.” It’s in a thick, hardcover Prestige Edition with a second CD containing a 29-minute interview with Uchida talking about Schumann. Lest you think this is a bonus, it’s likely the reason for the special pricing of this release –– which is nearly double the cost of a single CD. The liner notes by Misha Donat are, of course, excellent and informative. There are also pictures of the title pages and inside pages of the original editions of each of the works on the CD, as well as a full-color Uchida discography.

The interview is not quite that. It’s basically a monologue by Uchida interrupted by a couple of questions from James Jolly, former Editor of Gramophone Magazine. There are some interesting points made about Schumann’s piano music and the works on this disc, all presented in an intense, emotional, over-hyped kind of rhetorical style which didn’t appeal to me. It may to others. But the Schumann playing is superb.

Details Box:
Genre: CD review, Mitsuko Uchida plays Schumann (2 CD-set)
What: Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6 and the Fantasie in C major, Op.17
LabelsDecca CD, DDD 478 2280 DH2 
Release date: September 15, 2010
Prestige Edition with hardcover, extra CD with 29 minute interview with Uchida talking about Schumann with James Jolly; full color discography