Tag Archives: Mitsuko Uchida

Schubert (specifically, his last sonata), Mitsuko Uchida, and my mother

 

 

Shubert piano sonata in B-flat Minor, D. 960

his last piano sonata

not published

he died two months later

 

 

Mitsuko Uchida

flawless performance at Carnegie Hall on May 4, 2019

 

 

I have criticized her (perhaps unfairly) with reference to Schubert performances.

I saw her a couple of times performing at Carnegie Hall within the past year. A Schubert performance last year left me feeling lukewarm about her, despite the fact that the audience — she has a following — loves her.

But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions or “give up” on her too easily, I thought. It may be that I have been lacking in discernment and, consequently, appreciation for her playing.

She certainly confounded my expectations, and my prior less than enthusiastic opinions, on Saturday evening.

I realize that the three last Schubert piano sonatas are all great, just about equally. I have had a sentimental preference for the next to last sonata, D. 959. But I fully felt and experienced the greatness of the sonata D. 960 tonight. Mitsuko Uchida made me feel that.

And, I realized, as an auditor, why she is regarded, probably, as the foremost Schubert interpreter of our time.

So, from her hands, I heard Schubert and felt what makes his music unique and special. And so lyrical in a deeply affecting way. Note I said lyrical, by which I don’t mean to neglect what I would call complexity yoked to powerful, direct expression — a quality preeminent, unmistakably so, in Beethoven. It’s not quite the same thing, but — as to what makes Schubert great – in the program notes from last night’s concert, reference is made to Schubert’s “seemingly bottomless stockpile of melody, his ability to invest the simplest of musical phrases with dramatic significance.” (italics added)

Schubert sounds like no one else. His sound — if I were a musicologist, I could probably elucidate the distinguishing features; chords, for example (the program notes refer to “quicksilver changes of keys and moods”) — is sui generis. He is almost immediately recognizable. Perhaps this is a truism that applies to practically all great artists: the Handel of Messiah and Samson; the Haydn of the masses and The Seven Last Words of Christ; the Mozart of the Ave verum corpus and Masonic Funeral Music … the Melville of Moby-Dick; the Tolstoy of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection; the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

But– I’ll say it– I prefer Schubert to Chopin (with respect to the former’s compositions for piano).

 

 

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What is it about Schubert?

I would say that he is incredibly self-contained — his music is sufficient unto itself. By which I mean that his music holds, fulfills, and enraptures the listener without anything in it that was intended necessarily to impress or astonish. The music seems to bubble up like a spring. There is nothing imitative or referential. No other composer could write such music. There is was only one Schubert. Self-evident? Yes, admittedly. But I got to thinking about this at the concert, and my mind wandered without my losing focus on the music. (This has happened to me at other concerts, as I have noted in previous blogs.)
How could I express these feelings or opinions of mine about Schubert? In my mind, I strained to think of a way to put or couch it. I thought of my mother. Yes, my mother.

My mother was a remarkable person. People almost always seemed to notice her special personal qualities, and to speak about them. There was something “self-contained” about her too. The good things were just there, inherent, unchanging; sort of wafted out of her; were effused into the atmosphere, so to speak, to those around her. The good things, the remarkable things — her particular way of seeing things and relating to people and her milieu — seemed to have always been part of her.

She wasn’t trying to impress others (though she was self-conscious, naturally, about the impression she made and eager to be thought well of). She was, to the extent she was admired for her good qualities, just that way. One felt that one would never meet such a person ever again, which is not to say that she was a perfect person or deserved veneration. It’s just that what was good about her was constant; distinctive in her; treasured and consistently welcome for the sense of emotional satisfaction that came from being privileged to be related to or know her. By which I don’t mean that she was like a therapist, healer, or do-gooder (though she was kind and thoughtful), she was someone whom people wanted to know and associate with because of who she was.

 

 

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Like Schubert? Meaning one wants to listen to him. Not because one should (because someone told you you must, because of his musical standing or stature as a composer). Not because he is the best composer in this or that medium, or was important as a composer in the transition from classicism to romanticism. But because he’s Schubert . And, with my mother, people wanted to know and talk with Elinor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

May 6. 2019

 

 

 

IMG_4547 (2)

my mother and I in Danvers, Massachusetts

 

 

May 6, 2019

reflections on yesterday

 

 

I had a long day yesterday.

It began with an early morning appointment in Manhattan. It concluded (the Manhattan part of my day) with a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The concert program included a performance of a lengthy Schubert piano sonata which I have never heard before and two Shostakovich works for piano: his 24 Preludes, Op. 34 (1932-33) and his Prelude and Fugue in D Minor, Op. 87 (1950-51). The pianist, who is young and is apparently a rising star, was Michail Lifits, who lives in Germany.

Somehow, despite my lack of technical knowledge when it comes to musicianship, I knew that he is very good, has a mastery of technique. I liked that he played without histrionics (and affected a like stage manner). Yet his playing was the polar opposite of UNexpressive. It doesn’t overwhelm or dazzle you. It thoroughly engages you. Totally. Before you quite realize what is happening.

I couldn’t help making comparisons with two recent all-Schubert concerts featuring the pianist Mitsuko Uchida that I attended. Dame Mitsuko (as she is now known; she lives in the UK) has quite a following. She is known as a Schubert as well as Mozart interpreter/performer and is doing a series of concerts of all the Schubert sonatas. She plays elegantly and, as far as I can tell, flawlessly. But her performances bore me. Was it — is it — because they were or are too timid? Is that the right word? I had heard yet another pianist perform my favorite Schubert piano sonata, the Sonata in A major, D. 959, a month or so. His performance was anything but “timid,” but it didn’t satisfy me either.

What is it about my experience with Schubert lately? Mitsuko Uchida played several of his lesser known sonatas and they did nothing for me. Can I be thinking that about Schubert? I said to myself. And last night Mr. Lifits played Schubert’s piano sonata in G Major, D. 894. It was good in places, but it didn’t do much for me.

The Shostakovich, after the intermission, was something else. Along with his brilliance, there is such a variety of moods in his music, both within a given piece and from one work to another. Mr. Lifits was the performer to do the preludes justice!

 

 

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In between morning appointment and evening concert, I had a lot of time to kill in the City. I met my wife and a friend of hers for lunch. We had a great time.

After my wife left, I fell into a funk. I would have liked to go home with her, but I had the concert and had to kill time. I was tired and felt depressed. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the library and a Starbucks, plus walking uptown. Brooding. In a mood the opposite of sanguine.

I was so emotionally drained that by the time I got to the concert I didn’t want to be there.

But, what happened was that the concert focused my attention — outside of myself. I had to sit still and pay attention for about two hours the same way a student does in a class or a churchgoer at a Sunday service. This was good for me. If I had gone home, I would have continued brooding or have been trying to indulge myself in unsatisfactory ways, including (but not limited to) telling my wife about all the things bothering me.

I had been up practically all night the night before trying to finish an essay I had been working on for a long time. All week I had been feeling very energized and creative and was very busy.

At the concert last night, and on the way home, I thought about the week and all the little things that were annoying me, despite having gotten things accomplished. Little impediments that seemed like intrusions. People wasting my time. A therapist I was seeing once (himself a writer) made the observation to me that writing is by definition a very self-centered activity. Well (you may be wondering what this has to do with anything), all week last week I was very wrapped up in my own thoughts. When people interrupted me, or started rambling on about this or that, I felt inpatient. When they didn’t seem to be listening closely, I felt annoyed.

Guess what? I thought to myself at the concert, my thoughts and preoccupations are often not of that much interest either, certainly not to others. And, many of my petty annoyances are just that, trivial.

 

 

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You’re down. Feeling put upon. Misunderstood. Neglected. Needy or lonely.

You put on good clothes and go to church. Listen to a sermon. You go to class and listen to a lecture, take notes. You attend a cultural event such as a concert.

You have something in common with all the other people at the concert. They are all listening to Shostakovich, are hoping to like it, and thought it worth their while to attend.

No one in the audience cares about you or your grievances.

You realize that the focus should be elsewhere. That many of the trivial annoyances don’t matter. Balance and perspective are important.

To be energized, to think energetically, to be creative requires an immersion in one’s own self and thoughts, and intense mental effort.

To sort things out requires calmness and a focusing of attention elsewhere.

Shostakovich composed preludes in the early 1950’s. People find them worth listening to decades later. I am in love with what Walt Whitman, talking about himself, called “my great thoughts, as I supposed them.” Other things also require attention. Everything is important, and most things are inconsequential. One needs to both hold on and be able to let go.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 24, 2018

two of my favorite piano sonatas and how important the performer seems to be

 

 

They are as follows:

 

 

Beethoven, piano sonata no. 27, opus 90, second movement (“Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen”; Not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner)

 

 

Andrew Rangell

 

Emil Gilels

 

Manon Clément

 

Maurizio Pollini

 

Steven Osborne

 

 

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Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, D. 959, second movement (Andante)

 

 

Alfred Brendel

 

David Korevaar

 

Gerhard Oppitz

 

Mitsuko Uchida

 

 

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My love of these two pieces may partially have to do with the circumstances under which I first heard them.

My mother used play the second movement of the Beethoven sonata. Like many amateur pianists, she had a few favorite pieces she would play all the time that she must have learned from her piano teacher. I would fall asleep listening to her play the second movement of sonata number 27 with great feeling. I didn’t care whether her technique would have been regarded as good or not. (Nor, at that age, would I have thought about this.)

 

 

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Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, no. 959, second movement (Andante)

 

I first heard the Schubert sonata, hitherto unknown to me, in the film Au Hasard Balthashar, directed by Robert Bresson, at the now defunct Elgin Theatre on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. It got me in a visceral sense. Bresson was a master at using music in his films, sparingly yet always effectively. The Andante functions as a leitmotif for the soundtrack.

 

 

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Beethoven, piano sonata no. 27, opus 90, second movement

 

As far as these renditions of the second and last movement go, I think Emil Gilels plays the movement too fast. I am not sure that’s the right way to put it, but he seems to play without feeling, sort of rushes through the movement and wings it, so to speak. As if he were not heeding Beethoven’s instructions to play it “not too swiftly and conveyed in a singing manner.”

I like Andrew Rangell and Manon Clément’s interpretations. Neither pianist is that well known. I have a preference (I think; it’s hard to make such judgments) for Manon Clément’s rendition. Maybe she’s inferior to the other pianists in technical skill, but she manages to make the piece compelling.

 

 

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Schubert, sonata no. 20 in A, no. 959, second movement

 

What was Mitsuko Uchida thinking (or intending) when she played the Andante of this sonata? Andante, yes; means at a “walking pace.” She seems to have interpreted Andante as meaning “crawling.” She puts you to sleep. (I am not an expert, but it seems as if she could have played a tad more fortissimo.) She is a renowned interpreter of Mozart, Schubert, and other composers. I have heard some of her Mozart renditions, and they are outstanding.

Note at how much faster a tempo (dramatic, but perhaps it should have been a bit slower) Alfred Brendel commences the andante. And, he plays it much louder. Overall, I think Brendel’s rendition is impressive and does the movement justice.

Overall, of the four versions posted here, I prefer German pianist Gerhard Oppitz’s rendition.

 

 

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This brings to mind something true about music from my personal experience. How valid it is, or whether it conforms to others’ experience, I don’t know. As is evinced by the Beethoven, I grew to love it by hearing my mother, an amateur pianist, play it with feeling. And, of all the versions posted here, I think I like Manon Clément’s the best, yet she is the least well known performer. Conclusion, for what it’s worth: the circumstances under which one hears music and the emotional content the performer can convey — through skill but also through performance intangibles, and through the desire to “communicate” musically (rather than just be admired as a performer) — make a great difference.

It’s not that different in writing, something which I know more about. An earnest desire to communicate can go a long way in making a piece of writing succeed. It’s not the only thing — technical skill and knowledge must be there — but a showoff who just wants to impress and does the job with no sense of their real or virtual audience (be it that in playing or writing) will leave listeners and readers feeling unfulfilled.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017

 

 

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Addendum: Igo Pogorelich’s rendition of Sonata no. 27, no. 90 is worth listening to.