Ayako Uehara, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Ayako Uehara was the first woman and the first Japanese pianist to win first prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2002. Fame usually follows rather than precedes a Wigmore debut, even if you have won a major competition, and Uehara's first CD for EMI (all Tchaikovsky) has only just been released, but the hall was well filled, inevitably with a large Japanese element.

Ayako Uehara was the first woman and the first Japanese pianist to win first prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2002. Fame usually follows rather than precedes a Wigmore debut, even if you have won a major competition, and Uehara's first CD for EMI (all Tchaikovsky) has only just been released, but the hall was well filled, inevitably with a large Japanese element.

Twenty-four this year, Uehara is tiny, which means that she needs the stool high enough to give weight from the shoulders (good for depth of tone), but not so high that she can't reach the pedals. During the course of the evening, over-pedalling emerged as a fault, but her tone, if not exactly beautiful, was powerful enough in a very demanding programme.

She eased herself in with a Nocturne by Tchaikovsky, as if she were sinking into a hammock - an impressively relaxed start, just when you expect a bit of tension. The Humoresque that followed was, by contrast, rather brittle with rhythms that were jerky rather than robust.

Tchaikovsky's G major Sonata, something of a rarity, filled the rest of the first half. It has had a bad press, and yet it is full of characteristic invention. Uehara mastered its hefty demands impressively, without quite generating the feverish heat that fires the big outer movements. The slow second movement, with its sobbing repeated notes in the right hand over a descending bass, was strongly sustained, and the voicing of fore and background expertly judged. If that suggests a hint of the clinical, of the learnt rather than felt, then it accounts for the impression that here was an exceptionally gifted student rather than a mature artist. I just wanted her to enjoy herself more, rather than do everything correctly. Where was the sense of delight in the tiny Scherzo, for instance?

A more sincere, straight- forward, lyrical impulse might have informed four Scriabin Etudes after the interval, too. Surely the languor of the F sharp major Etude from Op 42 was exaggerated, and the melancholy of the B flat minor Etude from Op 8 seemed contrived and artificial - not at all what Scriabin meant.

I should like to have been a fly on the wall at Miss Uehara's lessons, for what induced her to stagger the hands in the seraphic second theme of Liszt's B minor Ballade, God only knows. Each time it occurred, she did the same thing. It was as if she were imitating the idiosyncrasy of a great pianist without understanding the artistic reason for it.

By this time, a feeling of alienation had set in: this performer had simply not engaged my feelings. Her Liszt left nothing to be desired, except that vital spark - what Maxim Vengerov calls the feeling of being born again on the platform. If there's a typical competition winner, perhaps Ayako Uehara is it.

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