Concertgoers were in for a treat when Carolina Performing Arts & the William R. Kenan, Jr. Trust Endowment presented the legendary pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, in Memorial Hall. Born near Tokyo, trained in Vienna, now a longtime resident of London, Ms. Uchida is a giant of the piano world. From the moment she breezed onstage and slid onto the bench all in one fluid motion, attacking the opening chords of Schubert’s great Sonata in C minor (D. 958) with gusto, it was clear we were in the presence of a force of nature. Uchida is a fascinating kaleidoscope of physical contradictions: One of the most seasoned pianists of our time; she has an amazingly youthful presence that completely belies her age, together with the physical grace of a yoga practitioner. Perhaps these intangibles help explain her incredible elasticity and freshness. Confident and powerful, intuitive and quiet — all these describe Ms. Uchida, but none capture her. One senses nothing could.
Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, together with the Sonatas in A (D. 959) & B-flat (D. 960), was composed during the last months of his life, and published 11 years after his death. It is rightly considered one of Schubert’s crowning achievements. By turns passionate and explosively energetic, melancholy and withdrawn, the 4-movement sonata is a perfect vehicle for Uchida’s gifts. Her lyrical body movements during the Menuetto gave the impression she might dance off the piano bench at any moment. Here was a perfect blend of the physical and the emotional, the ethereal and the concrete. The final Allegro was exhilarating. Even more amazing was Uchida’s dynamic control. Rarely have I heard such intensely quiet passages, leaving me with the sense I was eavesdropping on a very personal matter. At times I was afraid to breathe for fear of missing the tiniest nuance. Uchida’s dynamic mastery is matched only by her completely natural sense of rhythm; something so subtle, yet so solid, it must be the key to her magnetic musical presence.
The remainder of the first half was devoted to a curious, though completely satisfying mix of pieces from a set of miniatures called Játékok (Games) by the contemporary Hungarian composer, György Kurtág (b. 1926), interspersed with two gems by J. S. Bach. Játékok has been described as a musical diary that pays homage to Kurtág’s close friends and colleagues. Pairing these composers was a touch of genius. The quick flourishes of Kurtág’s Antiphone in F-sharp Major, for example, became the perfect prelude to Bach’s Contrapunctus No. 1 (from The Art of Fugue). The juxtaposition felt so natural it made the Kurtág pieces seem oddly familiar and comforting, though it’s probably fair to say few in the hall had ever heard them. Ms. Uchida’s thoughtful Contrapunctus and her silky, delicate Bach Sarabande (from the French Suite in G) made the evening worthwhile all by themselves. The Sarabande brought to mind fine porcelain or delicate watercolors: perfection. Kurtág’s "Play with Infinity," its background a chromatic descent from the top of the keyboard, ended so quietly the last note was barely perceptible. It takes nerve to end a program half with a whisper rather than a bang. But Uchida knows what works, and this clearly does.
The second half treated us to Schumann’s “Études symphoniques,” Op. 13, a tour de force in the key of C-sharp minor, with a Theme & 12 Etudes in the original version (1837) as played by Uchida. Except for the brilliant and lengthy Finale, the etudes are brief, though offering a wide variety of musical types and tempi, a perfect showcase for great pianists like Uchida. As expected, we were treated to playing that was precise, firm, and exciting from start to finish.
Uchida’s encore was the famous Andante from Mozart’s Sonata in C (K. 545). No pyrotechnics here because Uchida doesn’t need them. She is famous for her Mozart, of course, and the audience hung on every note of her delicate interpretation, which never rose above a whisper. The sublime beauty of this piece summed up the evening perfectly. One imagined Mozart happily approving every nuance and thinking, “I’m so glad someone understands me so well.”