Last week, a much-awaited musician came to Carnegie Hall to play -- Japanese-born British pianist Mitsuko Uchida. While she is no blazing personality, her fans are numerous and she has a very devout following. Her program at Carnegie Hall on April 18 was, at first glance, unassuming -- but a closer inspection would reveal pieces most pianists would hesitate to put on a recital program for Carnegie Hall. Starting out quietly with a couple of Preludes and Fugues from Bach's Well Tempered Clavier (Book II), she continued with Arnold Shoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces. The remainder of the program was Schumann - but not Kreisleriana, or the Symphonic Etudes, or any of the deeply impressive works popular for a good reason. What she played were some of Schumann's more inscrutable pieces; beautiful and mysterious, yet lacking the fiery pathos that characterizes much of his music.
Uchida started out with the Prelude in C major as if trying out the piano, followed by an energetic Fugue. By the next piece, however, she was well in her element -- deep and reflective, the Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp minor prepared us for the Schoenberg; six short pieces that were barely a whisper but seemed suspended in air and time. Abstract objects seemed to float in a mist, and the silences between the notes meant as much, if not more, as the notes she actually played.
Schumann's Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) followed -- nine miniatures with innocent titles such as Friendly Landscape and Hunting Song. These pieces are frustratingly simple -- many a fire-breathing virtuoso would shy away from them, not knowing what to do with such unadorned music. But in Uchida's hands, these pieces became inimitable little pictures. There is little if any "self" in her playing. The music projects itself thrugh her without her making a fuss of projecting her own personality on the music. Her sound rose from the keyboard, floated and evaporated.
Schumann's Piano Sonata No. 2 seemed a bit pedal-heavy and hurried in the faster movements; her forte is clearly in the range between p and ppp. She spun through the first movement as if it were one storm, without much contrast, but the second movement was Uchida at her best. If her sonata lacked rousing climaxes, she made up for it aplenty by the quieter moments, where she savored each and every note.
The concert finished with one of Schumann's last compositions, Fünf Gesänge der Frühe (Five Songs of the Dawn.) Starting out with a lovely dewy stillness in the first song, she took the audience through a journey of incredible textures, tones and colors. Few pianists can inject so much detail into the seemingly simple. Sound rose from the piano like vapor, held still for a moment and seemed to disappear.
For the encore, she played a Scarlatti Sonata in D minor (K. 9) then, acknowledging the fervent applause, she gave another, the Andante Cantabile from Mozart's Sonata in C (K. 330).