After a rocky start, a sensitive conclusion

November 18, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The pianist Mitsuko Uchida is in the midst of a three-concert Schubert-Schoenberg cycle in New York's Lincoln Center; Wednesday evening in a Washington Performing Arts Society recital, she brought part of it to the Kennedy Center.

Pairing Schubert's final Sonatas in A Major (D. 959) and B-flat Major (D. 960) with Schoenberg's opus 25 Suite may seem bizarre: Schubert occupies a central position in the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven-Brahms-Mahler tradition that Schoenberg and his followers believed they had replaced.

But Schoenberg's system ordering the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, to deprive them of harmonic relation to one another, was a response to the intense chromaticism that had apparently exhausted tonal music by the beginning of the 20th century. And some of the earliest instances of such chromaticism come in Schubert's late music. None is so remarkable as the cataclysmic passage of bravura recitative that interrupts the A Major Sonata's second movement for about two minutes, making key as such cease to exist.

It was with the A Major Sonata that Uchida opened Wednesday's program. She clearly wanted to demonstrate that the A Major Sonata is a tortured work, but in doing so she robbed the music of coherence and meaning. Instead of allowing the music its majestic opening, Uchida began the first movement with quirky explosiveness that continued into the subsequent chain of fantastic modulations. For music to express a sense of tottering on disaster, it must provide a reasonably stable vantage point from which to make such judgments.

Uchida's failure to provide such a framework was more painfully apparent in the plaintive second movement, which provides the greatest surprise of all -- the heretofore mentioned onslaught that interrupts it. From the first phrase, however, Uchida made the music sound so discomposed that its actual decomposition was scarcely unexpected: the music's line began to break apart before the arrival of the storm.

Perhaps Uchida performed the A Major Sonata in so exaggerated a manner because she wanted to emphasize the contrast with the Schoenberg Suite that followed. In the Schubert, anguish is expressed by the threat to tonality posed by atonality; in the Schoenberg, Bach-like sunny optimism is expressed by the orderly constructs that govern atonality. Uchida played the Schoenberg more persuasively, as well as more accurately, than the Schubert.

But Uchida redeemed herself after intermission with a tenderly subdued reading of the B-flat Sonata. She held the opening movement together at a very spacious tempo -- she took 23 minutes -- but was able to bring off the subsequent andante sostenuto.

She made the mysterious trill that pervades the first movement sound like distant thunder, bringing it menacingly near at the end of the exposition. The calm with which she rendered the first movement's coda fooled more than a few listeners into believing the performance was over. The following three movements also featured details that were sensitively drawn without threatening the architecture of the whole.

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