Who can deny that technical standards have risen astronomically in the last 30 years - but musical ones? Public acclaim is still too often based on the ability to get the notes right, in the right place, usually at breakneck speed. Sheer musical intelligence of interpretation is frequently the loser. Playing to the gallery is much more fun. But not for Mitsuko Uchida.
The third of the ongoing Barbican series "in tribute to the artistry of Mitsuko Uchida" was held not in the cavernous expanse of the Barbican concert hall, but in the exquisite, but tiny, LSO St Luke's. Chamber music is what Uchida had decided to play. Music from Viennese-based composers made up the programme, the old (Schubert) providing a telling foil for the new (Schoenberg and Berg).
Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Berg's Lyric Suite are arguably the greatest chamber works of each composer. In dramatic and musical terms, the programme needed to begin with the later work. Written more than a dozen years after the Schoenberg, Lyric Suite as played by the Brentano Quartet came over, completely naturally, as an obvious continuation of late-19th century Romanticism. Although it was his first major work to use the 12-tone technique or serialism as developed by his teacher Schoenberg, Berg's richness of harmony belies the exclusion of tonality. Here was music being made, the listener taken by the ears into the inherent beauty of the piece, regardless of any era. The homogeneity of approach - balance, gesture, stroke - between the players was extraordinary; the tenderness, fluency, dynamic control and architectural sense exceptional.
Following this with Schubert's late Four Impromptus for solo piano was masterly programming. After the intensity of Berg, Uchida began the C minor Impromptu with such simplicity, only to build the insistent, repeated notes with a quietness and determination scarily reminiscent of Schubert's great "Erlkönig". And in the E flat and A flat Impromptus, she positively poured out the rippling notes, relishing Schubert's harmonic "strangenesses", and giving the final Impromptu the spaciousness of Beethoven.
According to a frosty letter from Schoenberg to Varèse, Pierrot Lunaire received 100 rehearsals before its first performance. While it seems doubtful that Uchida - joined by Mark Steinberg (violin/viola) and Nina Maria Lee (cello) of the Brentano, with Marina Piccinini (flute), Anthony McGill (clarinet) and the fabulous Barbara Sukowa (billed as Narrator) - enjoyed a fraction of these rehearsals, the result was breathtaking - the more so because Sukowa performed without a score and with no conductor.
Sukowa is an actress, her voice is husky, and this was melodrama to be marvelled at. She made little attempt to "follow" the pitches indicated in the score, but her narration adhered to Schoenberg's speech rhythms with considerable accuracy; she knows this piece backwards.
With this dream team, and despite Sukowa's charismatic delivery, only the language (German) proved any obstacle - Schoenberg once exhorted an American conductor to perform it in English. Uchida was first among equals, as any great musician should be. Schoenberg without fear.
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