Even a century after Schoenberg smashed the tonal tradition of western music, it takes daring for a solo pianist to put him at the centre of a recital in London’s largest concert hall. And it takes an exceptional pianist to prove how, against expectation, Schoenberg cannot escape that tradition’s wider arc. This is what Mitsuko Uchida, a lonely champion of Schoenberg’s music among today’s leading pianists, achieved in her latest appearance in Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series.
It’s not that she softened the language of his Six Little Piano Pieces Op.19 to make it more palatable. No, she simply made sense of its syntax, giving it a quasi-impressionist power of suggestion no less bewitching than the Schumann that followed – while showing, through the grace and sensitivity of her touch, that this is as much a music of silences as of sounds.
Schoenberg, preceded by a pair of Bach preludes and fugues and followed by some of Schumann’s most enigmatic pieces, adds up to the opposite of a showman’s programme. It is a mark of the intensely loyal following she has built that this collection of musical “problem children” should still draw a full house.
Her Bach – from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book Two – sounded every bit as modern as her Schoenberg had been anchored in tradition. She toyed with the metre of the aria-like F sharp minor Prelude and turned the Fugue into an exuberant fount of complexity. Here, as in her Schumann Waldszenen, she drew a singing quality from the keyboard that showcased the music’s edgy fantasy.
From the innocence of Waldszenen before the interval, Uchida plunged into the manic-depressive extremes of the Sonata No 2 and Gesänge der Frühe in an all-Schumann second half. Her heroic engagement with the Sonata’s frenzied trajectory sometimes came at the expense of clarity, but it was a price worth paying. And her evocation of the twilit world of the Sonata’s Andantino created a musical picture as rapt and compelling as the lyrical-listless moods of the Gesänge.