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February 1, 2005

Pianist Uchida celebrates Boulez's birthday with Orchestra Hall performance

Before Mitsuko Uchida unassumingly took to the stage last Sunday afternoon, the piano stood alone in the center of the stage at Orchestra Hall with nothing but emptiness for company. Though a full grand, it seemed baby-like, dwarfed by its surroundings—hardly the setting for an intimate recital. So Uchida aimed for the opposite effect and gave an orchestral concert, or so it would seem from the program.

The three works she presented are perhaps the most orchestral a selection can be without being categorized as such. The first was Pierre Boulez's Notations, a collection of his earliest compositions in the public sphere, followed by Schubert's unfinished piano Sonata in C, also known as the Reliquie. The second half was reserved for the titan that is Beethoven's Hammerklavier. Uchida did not touch her trademark Mozart or any of the French composers prominent in her repertoire, such as Debussy, and certainly not any Chopin. Those would all be far too personal, meant for the comfortable closeness of a salon rather than the vastness of a concert hall.

Uchida's recital was part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's celebration of conductor and composer Boulez's 80th birthday, which continues through May. For that purpose, Uchida performed Notations, written by a 20-year-old Boulez in 1945. The composition is a set of 12 pieces, each a scant 12 measures long. The iteration of the number 12, of course, is significant in that it forms the basis of serial composition, a technique Boulez was studying under Messiaen at the time. Though one might not immediately expect an orchestral feel from such small-scale piano pieces, there are many grandiose qualities to them. Boulez himself must have seen this when the piece was reintroduced to him in the 1970s, for he has since begun to orchestrate them fully, although they are able to fill the hall with a rich sound even in their original form.

Notations essentially alternates between the contemplative and the vigorous, though each section purports to be based on a unique substance or idea. This is not to say that they are unimaginative or simple in any way. On the contrary, each is remarkable, and they are certainly all impressive for their conciseness. In many ways, the success of these pieces depends on their brevity. Were they any longer, it is conceivable that they would shed their novelty and lose their appeal.

As for Uchida's performance, it was impeccable. As one would expect, the more fantastic and percussive pieces took advantage of the hall, while the softer, more mysterious ones tended to lose themselves in the vastness of the acoustic space, dissipating too rapidly. Uchida mostly let the pieces speak for themselves, adding as little flourish to her movements as possible. She only allowed herself a small amount of swaying and some intense facial expressions, resulting in an absorbing performance.

Schubert's Sonata D. 840 in C Major consists of only two movements. Why he never finished it is unknown, but like its symphonic counterpart, the sonata can stand as a complete work. Unlike the symphony, however, the sonata seems to be battling with its orchestral nature. Indeed, the first movement, in sonata form, presents a two-fold picture of itself. Both a lyrical, light nature and a layered orchestral texture rise to the surface, providing two alternating voices for the progression of the movement. The first theme is presented softly, in a manner that sounds like an opening to one of Schubert's songs. Instead of giving way to a voice, however, it leads into a thick, orchestral restatement of the theme. This sort of double exposition continues throughout the movement. Near the end, it appears the orchestral has won out, as the recapitulation presents only the orchestral version of the first theme. However, it has not triumphed entirely—the movement seems to finish with a raucous, symphonic pounding of the tonic C major. But this turns out only to be a false ending, and gives way to a second, quieter, closing theme.

Uchida's performance accentuated the contrasts between these two characteristics, contributing to the sense that the piece was a juxtaposition of two separate entities. One of the most moving moments was the subtle transition back to the repeat of the exposition, which Uchida played with phenomenal grace. Other highlights included the harmonically bold transition to the second theme in B minor, and the lyricism with which Uchida played the entire development. This last mood permeated the entirety of the second movement, filling it with a flowing, episodic feel.

The most memorable work of the afternoon, however, was the Hammerklavier. Uchida had apparently decided the audience had waited long enough for it. She rushed to the piano after intermission, only slightly acknowledging the crowd and beginning to play even as the applause continued. This lent the opening fanfare new meaning, which Uchida used to call the audience to listen. It created a sense of urgency that continued through the entire piece. Uchida played the whole movement at such a quick tempo that at times it sounded as though she simply wanted to be done with it. This possibility was contradicted by the exaggeration Uchida bestowed on all rubati and ritardandi. The tempo, however, seemed to increase throughout the piece, resulting in an urgent intensity.

The scherzo, or second movement, continued in a strong tempo, allowing Uchida to exhibit impressive swells. The adagio was, unfortunately, a victim of the hall. Uchida decided to play this especially slowly, creating too much intimacy for this setting. There were, luckily, some moments that worked, such as the tender first appearance of the second theme. Uchida was patient at the end of this movement, letting the finale rise from it. The self-reflecting introduction mushroomed from a pleasant softness into the wild fugue—and wild it was.

Uchida played this fugue at a tempo that can only be described as insanely fast. This had benefits and drawbacks. It was, if nothing else, a mighty feat, as she played with near-perfect precision. The tempo did, however, change the nature of the fugue. Instead of hearing the individual lines moving and relating to each other, they all fused together into a single, cohesive entity. Uchida's aided this by "wet pedaling," or sustaining notes for longer than is conventional for a fugue and letting them run into each other. This was both good and bad; the interweaving line that is so integral to a fugue was lost, but the result, an entirely new sound, was a fascinating, dazzling end to the recital.