February 14, 2003

Pianist Uchida interprets alliterative trio of composers

What is appealing about fables is, in part, that in them animals begin to speak. Before one recognizes that what they are speaking of is really us, as human beings, and our peculiar concerns, idiosyncrasies, and traits of character, one may well be enchanted at seeing humanity's formerly mute companions acquire a voice of their own, leaving behind their linguistic passivity, their perennial being-spoken-to and being-spoken-about, making themselves heard in a world in which only man speaks and only man's will counts. The hope is, one might say, that such talking animals could release us out of our fatally self-referential chains of language, a chain in which, in the words of Hannah Arendt, "man, wherever he goes, only ever encounters himself."

The hope is that in enlightened dialogue with animals, we could come to understand nature not as anthropomorphism, as so many projections of mankind's conceptual and affective desires and projects onto nature, but nature as it really is, as it understands itself previous to any human self-impositions. Natura discursiva alone could help us transcend that perennial human loneliness, the loneliness of being, as a human, only among humans, could open to us extrahuman perspectives on the world, providing us with a new kind of knowledge, telling us things that we have not already known. The hope, in other words, is that such a conversation might prefigure our return to a oneness with nature, to an overcoming of that primordial split of nature and culture that began around the time when homo sapiens arose from its apelike posture, acquired reason and self-consciousness, and henceforth became the deinotaton--the strangest animal that has seemingly overcome its animality, interfering with the leisurely course of nature. But of course, such utopia is negated in the very moment in which it is articulated. The insight that fables are about us is only a critical reminder of the aporias of such utopia, deepening our understanding of the nature of humanity's linguistic and social bond.

What I've said about fables is perhaps itself a fable, or better: a parable. Namely, a parable about music and the utopian perspectives it seems to grant. Music, as the human cultural transcendence of birdsong and animal-cries, is the unity of form and content in sound, the ordering of aural expression in systems of constructed schemata. It is a human construction, yet, in the eyes of many writers about music, it offers the promise to say something higher, to educate us about the "absolute," and to articulate in sounds the outlines of a divine spirit. And such is the animal-nature of music: that it cannot seemingly speak for itself, suffering from the bane of its non-conceptuality.

It must rely on music critics and scholars to wax poetically and scholarly about it, however disastrous a failure such talk about its meaning and import must necessarily be.

Now let me dare say that last Sunday, at Symphony Hall, for a few all-too-brief minutes, music spoke. Let me also dare say that Mitsuko Uchida's Schubert was quite unlike anything I've heard before, in some ways more enriching, more unique, than what I've heard from even the great Schubert players. Under her hands, Schubert's peculiar form of poetry, a poetry somewhere in between classicism and romanticism, between self-restraint and boundless self-expression, began to speak with an almost unfathomable kind of immediacy. The mute notes of a notoriously inscrutable score came to life, if only for a moment. The sonata in G major, one of Schubert's most deeply poetic works, is lovely and beautiful, yes, yet with many a pianist can sound like one big problem. Schubert's never-ending poetic lines, so seemingly self-contained in their own world, resist simple interpretive sense-making. At best, the G major sonata, and especially its long, long first movement, may sound boring, artificial, dead. Not so with Uchida's highly inspired playing, a pianism of incredible love and care for each single phrase. Schubert here spoke with a naturalness that, paradoxically, is attainable perhaps only to the most self-aware of pianists. Uchida did not shy away from great interpretive risks. With great strength she sculpted the first movement's titanic and cataclysmic climax.

And when, in the trio of the Menuetto, she offered us a pianissimo classier than diamonds, more tender than a mother's kiss; even the more noisy members of the Chicago audience went quiet, attending in awe to a musicianship of rare nobility that received standing ovations only after the first half of the concert.

Mitsuko Uchida's Schumann was perhaps less of a success, if only because she fell in what one might call the trap of romanticism. Uchida, visibly moved by her own playing, so much that she seemed to wipe a tear out of her eye when bowing to the audience, was a little too sentimental when it came to Schumann's own poetic effusions. Each lyrical theme was articulated with the greatest care, the final movement taken at the slowest of speeds, such that it ultimately became excessive. At the same time, her interpretation of the second movement was highly illuminating in its strict rhythmic discipline, and its end, a passage of chordal leaps almost impossible to play, had all the heart-stopping excitement and daring that one could wish for in a live performance.

At the end of her recital, Uchida offered two encores, a short movement by

Bach, and the slow movement from Mozart's piano sonata in C major, K. 330.

In the Mozart, all the magnificence returned. Whereas I find Uchida's often-praised CD recordings of the Mozart sonatas all-too-bland and even superficial, here she seemed to get to the heart of the matter, grasping Mozart's spirit congenially at its core. Mozart's music, as she once said in an interview, is a music that always forgives. And so we forgave her, for the momentary excesses, as we listened to the fabulous fable that is music.