Thursday, July 2, 2009

Uchida Unique

I suppose I should just say it: Mitsuko Uchida is the most skillful, intelligent, eloquent and tasteful pianist performing today. I have been listening to her recordings of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, which I found quite by accident. I had long admired her recordings of the Schubert sonatas and of Mozart, and I was not entirely sure what she would do with the Beethoven. As those who have followed this site will know, I consider the last Beethoven piano sonatas to be among the greatest achievements of our civilization, and I have loved and studied them for much of my life. So when I noticed the Uchida album on the shelf, I grabbed it.

I was not disappointed; indeed, far from it. She plays these sonatas with all the power, intelligence and clarity which she brings to everything else. Unlike many female pianists, who evince delicacy of touch and finesse of technique (which are unsuited to late Beethoven), Uchida plays the sonatas with all the strength of Rudolf Serkin, all the passion of Ashkenazy, and all the precision of Glenn Gould. But more than that, she brings such intelligence and such profound understanding and original ideas to the pieces that she shows things in them of which I had been only vaguely aware before. She does not try to make them her own, as so many pianists do; I am sure she believes that the sonatas belong rightly to Beethoven. But her vision of them and the potent tastefulness of her performance are unique.

Her revelations come in very small but salient moments. The way she ends a phrase, how she approaches an idea, her manner of using pauses, silence, elongations, compressions, bring out truths in the material which only she and her special talent can expose.To hear her play the Beethoven is like hearing Olivier or Gielgud voice Shakespeare. She is meditative when she must be, masculine when the music calls for it, insightful always, and she is capable (which many pianists are not) of enunciating the spiritual content of the sonatas, which is, after all, what they are about.

Uchida, to my mind and ear, combines supreme talent with profound sensitivity; a combination of power and delicacy that is rare; above all, an intelligence and a sensibility which, it seems to me, are unique to her. She is, I think, the finest pianist of our time.