by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 17, 2003
Schubert’s Sonata in G begins with a beautiful, sleepy, not immediately gripping theme—not so much a melody as a murmur of chords. It keeps ambling out in various directions only to retreat to the same delectable place, as if it could not rouse itself from its G-major bed. When I was studying piano, I foolishly decided that this was one of the Master’s more insignificant efforts, and skipped forward to the Sonata in B Flat, which has a way of sounding unutterably sublime even in the hands of a bumbling amateur. I felt an extra, private sense of wonder when Mitsuko Uchida played the G-Major Sonata the other night at Carnegie Hall and unlocked Schubert’s secrets one by one. It is one thing to get all the notes right; any number of unsocialized conservatory prodigies can do that. It is another thing to play the thoughts within the notes, the light around them, the darkness behind them, the silence at the end of the phrase. That is what inspires awe.
Carnegie has given Uchida a place in its “Perspectives” series, which allows a performer to step outside the virtuoso role and become a roving programming consultant, responsible not only for recitals but also for chamber-music and orchestral events. Uchida’s series explores links between the Austro-German classics and composers of the Second Viennese School; her recent solo recital juxtaposed Schubert with Schoenberg and Schumann. Such intellectual conceits, invigorating as they are on paper, tend to dissolve in the heat of live performance. Most of us would be happy to hear this pianist play any random music in any order, whether by Schnittke, Schnebel, Schnabel, or Cher. Uchida coaxes a sensationally warm tone out of the piano, and she can linger lovingly over individual notes without losing the main pulse of the phrase. She creates a picture so finely shaded in color and intensity that it becomes an unreal landscape in the middle distance. This total transport is what the grateful crowd at Carnegie seemed to want, in the middle of another shaky week in New York.
Uchida is a great Schubertian because she takes the music at face value, discarding stereotypes of the composer as a twee melodist or a doleful martyr. She follows without hesitation as the G-Major Sonata moves from spells of loveliness to binges of violence. At the beginning of the development section, that innocuous opening theme is suddenly shoved into the minor and blasted at high volume—it is less a development than a demonic possession. Uchida rendered this passage with the utmost force and the utmost coldness, as if she were following the instruction in Boulez’s Second Sonata: “Pulverize the sound.” Then the balm of G returns, almost as if those shattering blows had never happened, although scattered fortissimos recall the trauma. In the latter part of the movement, Uchida clung to each passing lyrical moment, reluctant to let the music end. Schubert marks his softer dynamics with the simple symbols p, pp, ppp; Uchida finds a dozen more gradations in between, microtones of pianissimo.
The “Perspectives” thesis notwithstanding, Schoenberg’s Three Pieces Opus 11 sound nothing like Schubert. But Uchida lavished enough care to give them the sex appeal of, say, dissonant Ravel. Textures that come across as jarring and ugly in the hands of other players here became Fauvist splashes of color, all surface and no theory. The program ended with Schumann’s Fantasy in C, which, for all its wealth of detail, carried less conviction than the Schoenberg or the Schubert. Uchida somehow missed the big picture of the work, its extravagance, its monumental, arc-like shape. Some passages were too vague and gauzy in execution—Uchida uses a lot of pedal these days—while others threatened to clatter out of control. Still, marvels unfolded on every page. I was struck by the phenomenon of a single note: an E suspended over a G dominant seventh, at the end of the first section. This note pulsed with inner life, as if it were being sounded by a clarinet against a blanket of strings. As before, Uchida played music on the edge of silence, and then, releasing the pedal a moment early, she played the silence itself.
Pianists with consummately brilliant technique are all too often featureless people who express nothing but their own perfection. Leif Ove Andsnes, a down-to-earth, thirty-two-year-old Norwegian, is one of the intimidating few who possess power and personality in equal measure. He gave a recital at Carnegie a week after Uchida, and afterward many musicians shook their heads in astonishment. For this pianist, technique is not an end in itself but a means of expression; the supernatural dexterity of his playing is beside the point. What is more, he seems to become a better musician with each appearance. When he made his Carnegie début, in 1999, a certain high-tech steeliness in his fingerwork got in the way of the obvious intelligence of his music-making. Now, visibly more relaxed, he floods the music with grace and wit. It seems almost unfair that he should be able to do all that he does in, say, the Chopin Third Sonata: flawless, glittering passagework in the first movement; then, in the Largo, an endless, simple, singing line.
Between Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie and the Third Sonata, Andsnes offered an array of pieces by Grieg, Debussy, and the contemporary Japanese composer Akira Miyoshi. It was, essentially, a lightning tour of Impressionism early, middle, and late. Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, of which Andsnes played five, are often pigeonholed as salon trifles, and they have seldom been heard at Carnegie Hall. “Bell Ringing,” an astounding piece that abandons conventional tonality for a world of free-floating open fifths, had, according to Carnegie records, never before appeared on a recital program in the main auditorium. The dates of composition, 1889 to 1891, look like a misprint, but they aren’t. Andsnes went without a pause from “Bell Ringing” to two Debussy études, as if to make the point that his Norwegian countryman was writing like Debussy almost before Debussy existed.
Andsnes’s artistic profile still lacks an elusive element: spontaneity, perhaps, or emotional risk. When, more than a year ago, the august Czech pianist Ivan Moravec presented a program of Chopin and Debussy, the music flowed as if from the source, and something about Moravec’s bearing suggested that he could have done it all another way if he had been in a different mood. No doubt this was an illusion, but it is an illusion that comes from a total intimacy with the repertory, a reduction of music to late-night, freewheeling conversation. It is the air of a master, and Andsnes will probably acquire it with time.
The downturn in the CD market has curtailed many recording careers, but Andsnes and Uchida are both securely busy at their respective labels— Andsnes at EMI Classics, Uchida at Philips. Uchida’s ongoing survey of Schubert sonatas is the most formidable since Radu Lupu’s. Her disk of the G-Major Sonata stands out, as does her grand, dark-toned traversal of the C-Minor Sonata. She also recently recorded the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, with Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra; atonality never sounded so good. A two-disk set entitled “Perspectives” culls some of the best of her Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, and Schoenberg. Andsnes, too, has started a Schubert survey, in which he plays the sonatas and accompanies the tenor Ian Bostridge in small groups of songs. The first installment pairs the “big” Sonata in A with such non-standard lieder as “Pilgerweise” and “Der Unglückliche.” Andsnes gives the first movement of the sonata a severe, muscular sound—he, too, takes Schubert at face value—while the Andantino is alternately melting and chilling.
This is all great music, forcefully played. For some reason, however, the new piano CD that I’ve listened to most is Andsnes’ compilation of the Grieg Lyric Pieces. They are recorded on the composer’s own piano, which has a rich, deep, slightly quirky tone, and EMI’s engineers have managed to preserve the aura of sound reverberating in an intimate room. The music speaks with almost contemporary freshness; you get the sense that some kind of visionary or maverick lurked behind the stereotype of Grieg, Bard of the Fjords, but never quite made it into the open. Andsnes omits “Bell Ringing,” but he devotes himself to other dreamlike miniatures—“Notturno,” “Evening in the Mountains,” “Gone”—that hover outside history and haunt us with the nearness of the past.