Beethoven and Schubert: Fire and Ice

Mitsuko Uchida [photo (c) Mastroiani]

Mitsuko Uchida [photo (c) Roger Mastroianni]

Franz Schubert once claimed that the genius of Beethoven was generated by “superb coolness under the fire of creative fantasy.” In her long overdue San Diego debut, pianist Mitsuko Uchida offered probing accounts of Schubert and Beethoven to an appreciative full house at La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium.

Schubert’s phrase might equally describe her account of the two seminal works of the First Viennese School she chose for Friday’s (March 28) recital, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894, and Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations,” Op. 120. Unlike the recent crop of piano superstars whose flamboyant body language forms an integral part of their calling cards, Uchida’s serenity at the keyboard assured her audience that fire and creative fantasy was contained only in the music itself.

The apparent composure of her opening chords of Schubert’s G Major Sonata also suggested darker overtones of the composer’s DNA. In that movement’s litling music-box themes, Uchida allowed a certain tonal shimmer, but she consistently played deeply into the keys to underscore the serious underpinning of these ideas. By using the sustain pedal with utmost discretion, she achieved impeccable clarity of articulation, yet tied together this Sonata’s wandering directions with a most congenial drive forward.

If the tone of Schubert’s piano music tends to the confessional, it was always evident that we were hearing the composer’s confessions, and not the performer’s.

Beethoven’s set of 33 variations on Anton Diabelli’s innocent waltz theme is nothing less than encyclopedic in its scope, and Uchida took us on a comprehensive tour—just a few minutes under a solid hour—whose energy and sense of delight-filled invention never flagged. She tossed off the original waltz with almost giddy abandon, then quickly focused on the brilliant architecture Beethoven erected over such gossamer material.[php snippet=1]

Whether she encountered torrents of octave flourishes (Variation 10), pearly phrases of Bachian refinement (Variation 24), torturous counterpoint at breakneck speed (Variation 17), deft humor parodying Mozart (Variation 22), quasi-impressionistic ruminations (Variation 20), or bravura cross-hand displays (Variation 4), her composure and finesse proved nonpareil.

Not surprisingly, Uchida declined encores after such a feat as the Beethoven, although the audience showered her with extensive applause. It was a wise decision: we had experienced the gamut of emotions in the Beethoven “Diabelli Variations.” What could have augmented or complemented that feat?

[box] This recital by Mitsuko Uchida was given at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium on March 28, 2014. The next program in the La Jolla Music Society’s Frieman Family Piano Series will be a recital by Barry Douglas on May 9, 2014, at the same venue. Tickets:; 858.459.3728[/box]

Uchida recital program

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La Jolla Music Society
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  1. Ken Herman on April 14, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    Readers may be pleased to note that Mitsuko Uchida played this same program at Carnegie Hall on April 9, 2014. Senior New York Times critic James R. Oestreich gave an equally enthusiastic account of her performance in the Arts section of today’s NYT: : We have La Jolla Music Society to thank for giving local music aficionados a first glimpse of what audiences in midtown Manhattan would enjoy.

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