Out & About
Reiko Uchida and Friends at Weill
23 April 2015

Over the weekend, I received an email from baritone Thomas Meglioranza. Tom was letting friends and fans know that his accompanist, Reiko Uchida, would be leading a chamber-music recital at Weill Hall on Wednesday. While part of me stepped aside in amazement, the rest of me clicked through Tom’s link for buying tickets, selected a pair of seats in the second row, and even sent a note to Ray Soleil, asking him to join me. Most amazing of all, despite yesterday’s gruddly weather and its atmospherically-induced fatigue, I got dressed, walked up to Lexington Avenue, caught the train, and arrived at Carnegie Hall in plenty of time.

(Weill Hall, formerly known as Carnegie Recital Hall, is a beaux-arts ballroom, kitted out with proper seats, that is tucked into the attics of the main auditorium. I visited it first as a child. My best friend’s piano teacher staged her pupils’ annual recitals there. When he wasn’t playing, Joey and I ran around exploring. At one point, we opened a door and were quite literally stunned by the sudden vista of a mighty orchestra, pouring out a racket of music, miles below us, at the bottom of a cliffish incline that was lined with thousands of immobile people. We both felt that we would be sucked into the pit if we so much as breathed.)

Yes, I went to a concert. A concert that I didn’t even know about a week ago.

Reiko Uchida has always struck me as an extraordinarily forceful pianist, with a gift for giving inner voices the near-equality that they deserve. Perhaps I exaggerate the strength of her playing because she cuts such a wraithlike, self-effacing figure. (Then she sits down, and watch out! Also, the acoustics in Weill Hall are very bright.) So although I did buy my tickets out of a sort loyalty/solidarity, supporting an artist I admire, I never expected to have less than a very good time. So what if all the works to be performed were unknown to me?

They were unknown to me only because the part of me that actually knows things was standing apart, dumbstruck at this response to Tom’s note. This wasn’t like me! I hadn’t been to a concert in over a year! I was retired from concertgoing! I would reconsider retirement — when the new subway started running! Even at my most active, I required more notice. Buying tickets on a Saturday for a concert on Wednesday? Nurse!!

My mad, executive self was incapable of reading fine print not connected with the transaction of purchasing tickets online. “Works to be performed, blah blah blah, Debussy, Prokofiev, blah blah…” Somehow Chopin seemed too inevitable to note, but I honestly don’t recall seeing Brahms’s name. In the event, only the Debussy Cello Sonata and Prokofiev’s 5 Mélodies for violin and piano were unknown to me. Not absolutely unknown, in the case of the Debussy, but not familiar. I knew everything else. Well, I thought I did. Brahms’s first viola sonata, and the Piano Quartet Op 26, I know these as well as I know anything. And of course Chopin’s fourth ballade.

Two hours and ten minutes after the recital began, I walked out with my teeth rattling. Once again, I’d heard everything for the first time.

Reiko Uchida had gathered three friends who all proved to be as strong as she is. Cellist Sophie Shao appeared first. She played with an authoritative passion that matched Ms Uchida’s. No matter what the phrase, it was played with the assured conviction that this was how it ought to be done. Dreamy lack of focus was not permitted. There were no rough edges, but there were no soft edges, either. I found this exciting, but I can well imagine that some listeners might find it — brash, or perhaps unsubtle. I don’t care much for “subtle” in music; to me, it usually signifies mush. And I like my Debussy especially crisp, performed with baroque brio. When attacked with verve, he comes across as an interesting modernist.

Violinist Jessica Lee allowed a small measure of melancholy to color her performance of Prokofiev’s mélodies, which really are tunes, if very sophisticated ones. Her violin gleamed beautifully. I knew that I had to get to know this suite well, and in fact I am listening to it as I write. I’ve assembled a playlist from the program; the Prokofiev was the only work that I had to buy (at iTunes). Joshua Bell is playing. He’s super, of course, but I wish I could be hearing Jessica Lee again. I owe the discovery of these pieces as beautiful music to her.

The one disappointment was wholly expected, so much so that it didn’t amount to a disappointment. Much as I love the viola, I don’t understand why Brahms ever yielded to a music publisher’s request for transcriptions of his two clarinet sonatas. If there is an instrument that lacks the clarion sharpness of the clarinet, it is the viola, which sounds simply woolly when trying to negotiate the flourishes that Brahms wrote for so different an instrument. Dov Scheindlin did his best, but it was only later, paying close attention to his contribution to the piano quartet, that I felt his artistry. (I’d also have voted for playing the other sonata, which begins with one of Brahms’s most beautifully-spun cantilena lines.)

Did I say that I knew the Chopin? That’s hard to square with how much of it sounded really new and unknown. A few years ago, I went on a Chopin blitz, larding playlists with rafts of pieces that I knew not particularly well. As a result, instead of learning them, I got them all mixed up. I recognized the theme of the ballade, but not the music with which the piece actually opens. Reiko Uchida played it as though her life depended on it. Such urgency was a tonic antidote to the blasé mastery that so many big names deign to display.

Brahms’s first piano quintet — he wrote three: this one, a quite sublime one next, and then, in the Opus Seventies, a third that doesn’t compare with either of its predecessors — was famously orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg, half in admiration, half in impish subversion. Schoenberg’s scoring manages to copy the original music with effects that would have scandalized Brahms. It’s a great piece of fun, and the zooty instrumental carryings-on release the enormous pressure of the original. Just how enormous this pressure is I found out last night. I thought we were all going to explode. The meatiness of the work’s textures accommodates the comprehensive display of things that Brahms likes to do, ranging from expressionist doodles in the piano part to bedrock “German” hymns. And the finale is a contrasting venture in the “Hungarian” style, with rhythms that flirt with recklessness and dynamics that threaten to be too extreme. It’s as close as Brahms ever came to vulgarity — which is what must have tempted Schoenberg into introducing an aural kick-line into his transcription. Although there was nothing vulgar about their performance, there were moments when I wondered if Reiko Uchida and her friends were trying to create the illusion that we were listening not to four players but to an immense orchestra.

Listening to my playlist, I can’t tell you how ho-hum it sounds, against the bold musicianship that I heard last night.