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CD Review

Chromatic Piano

Mitsuko Uchida, piano
Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Philips 468033-2 63:22
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Wowsers!

For many years, Schoenberg suffered a financially rough go in sunny southern California. Despite his magnificent Incidental Music to a Motion Picture Scene, composed in hope as a kind of musical "calling card," the Hollywood studios showed no interest in his work. Stravinsky suffered from the same problem, as far as original music went. Schoenberg scraped by on private composition students until he finally received academic appointments at USC and UCLA. The pianist Oscar Levant, one of his private pupils, decided to throw a little money Schoenberg's way and commissioned a short piano piece. Unfortunately, Schoenberg really got into the composing and the little work began to expand. Richard Hoffmann, Schoenberg's secretary, wrote to Levant and telling him that the morceau was now a piano concerto (with the letters "O," "S," "C," "A," and "R" worked into the basic row) and that for a few thousands, Levant would be guaranteed immortality. Levant got frightened at the cost and pulled out, although he did send Schoenberg the original sum they had agreed on. The première thus fell to Schoenberg's great champion, Eduard Steuermann.

As with most Schoenberg, there's no such thing as an okay performance. You encounter either wretched or wonderful. To some extent, this arises from both the unfamiliarity of Schoenberg's idiom and the complexity of the music. Schoenberg loved counterpoint. As in Mahler, the number of independent lines at any one time usually surpasses that of standard melody-with-accompaniment. Someone may say that Schoenberg has no melody to accompany, and – sarcasm aside – the quip contains a grain of truth. Schoenberg's music proceeds more by gesture and rhythm than by tune (although he does indeed have tunes, just as he wrote gorgeous tonal music throughout his career, in addition to the serial and atonal scores). At any rate, it really does make a difference which performance you listen to. My first encounter with the piano concerto came from the old Columbia recording with Glenn Gould and Robert Craft. It turned me off. The orchestra had very little idea how to shape the music. Furthermore, while I admire Craft's Stravinsky, I've never thought him particularly good in Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern. He obviously has ideas about the music, and to me they run counter to the composers' intent. Craft pioneered performances of these men, and for that deserves gratitude. However, like most pioneers, he cleared the way for civilization, rather than actually established one. Anyway, in those days, I blamed Schoenberg, rather than Craft. I broke through to the piano concerto by dumb luck. In college, I walked in on two friends of mine at two pianos as they practiced for the music school's concerto competition – one taking the solo, the other the orchestra part. I had no idea what they played, but I did know that I liked it a lot – strange harmonies, spiky textures, and a sense of propulsion through the whole thing. Of course, you've guessed that it was the Schoenberg concerto. It immediately became a favorite – and, incidentally, one of the keys to my understanding and love of Schoenberg's music – but many years passed before I heard a decent recording, Brendel and Gielen on Philips (see my review). At that point, I thought it unlikely to be bettered. Well, it has been.

One of the big stumbling-blocks of this piece is the matter of the kind of concerto it is. It obviously takes off from late Romanticism, but the soloist doesn't get an heroic part, as in the Brahms or the Tchaikovsky first. The orchestra has at least as many important moments as the piano, and much of the score dips into that Mahlerian stream of super-chamber music, as the piano plays with various small ensembles within the orchestra, a sound-world that continually changes color. In this scheme, the piano has its moments in the spotlight, moments primus inter pares, and moments where it gives way to some other instrument. You listen to this score, and you don't necessarily think "concerto." To me, it becomes more of a symphonic discourse, taking the chamber elements of the Brahms second or the Brahms Double Concerto even further.

The piece runs to one large movement, divided into four subsections: Andante ("Life was so easy"), Molto allegro ("Suddenly hatred broke out"), Adagio ("A grave situation was created"), and Rondo: Giocoso ("But life goes on"). The parenthetical descriptions turned up after Schoenberg's death in his papers, but we don't know whether they came before or after composition. In either case, the quotes show how Schoenberg translated the music to feeling. Furthermore, we have not merely four separate descriptions, but one interconnected plot, and that describes the piano concerto's discourse as well. Gestures, rhythms, and even characteristic intervals from earlier movements turn up in later ones, often with their character transformed. The concerto begins with a graceful waltz, with a disturbing undercurrent. If the composer recalls past days, he does so with regret, an implied contrast to the present. The section has affinities to an A-B-A, or even a sonata structure, with a clear return of the opening material. Toward the end of the movement, the storm clouds blow in quickly and we find ourselves in the second movement, an angry scherzo, which casts a long shadow over the work, despite its relative brevity. This leads to the slow third movement – my favorite of the concerto – a polyphonic lament. Some listeners get hung up on the tonal-atonal question when they confront a Schoenberg work. If you listen to Schoenberg's tonal music, you realize this man had an ear for harmony second to nobody. Not only could did he master late-Romantic chromaticism, he could find telling chord progressions well within the knowledge of a first-year student. However, Schoenberg found them first. In his late serial music, Schoenberg seeks affinities with the tonal tradition, and his sense of harmony – vertical sonority, chord-color – comes into play. Stravinsky once noted of his own serial work, that he sometimes "cheated," altering notes of his basic series of notes, because his sense of harmony was so strong. He wanted the harmony to "come out right." Tonality was a strong part of him, as I believe it was of Schoenberg. At any rate, I doubt whether an "innocent ear" worries about whether the Adagio has a key-center or not. This is beautiful, eloquent music.

The Adagio leads to a cadenza, in which themes from earlier movements are mulled over. The cadenza morphs into the sonata-rondo finale, with a theme that, in its rhythm at any rate, evokes Haydn finales. The "giocoso" ("joyful") marking misleads a bit. The heart really isn't so light here. Uchida, in her liner note, remarks that it's a march neither heroic (as in Beethoven) nor euphoric (as in Schumann). She hears in it "a hollow ring." I wouldn't go that far. For me, it's coming to the other side of catastrophe through deep reflection to a wiser, healthier view of things, if not exactly happiness and triumph. The entire concerto "feels" like one long meditation. Indeed, in its continual recall of earlier material, its chief procedural mode is meditation. Schoenberg wrote the concerto during the early part of World War II, when the outcome was in serious doubt. Certainly the work's "plot" reflects the time. For me, along with A Survivor from Warsaw, the later De profundis, and Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, this concerto is one of the great musical documents of the war.

Webern's Variations come from late in his career – Op. 27 in a catalogue of 32 opera. He didn't write all that much, both in terms of individual pieces and duration. You can probably fit all his original output on two CDs. He wrote the variations in 1936, and he died in 1945. I like Webern's music – although its extreme inwardness bothers me a little – but I haven't cared much for the piano variations. For me, a lot of the musical beauty comes from the composer's orchestration. His piano writing isn't obviously coloristic. Indeed, I've heard as many different interpretations of this score as of, say, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Too often, the piano comes off as unvaryingly monochromatic. Uchida's performance easily ranks as the best I've heard. She has constructed a psychological "profile" for the music. Webern purists may hate this approach, excoriating her for a "non-objective" view of the score. This camp wants just the notes, the tempo, and the dynamics, ma'am – something, incidentally, nobody but a crank insists on for just about any other music. If it were valid, the best interpretation of all would probably be some sort of MIDI realization, performed by computer. If I consider the composer's fondness for subtle shifts of color, soft dynamics, and phrase shape, I'd guess that Webern really preferred humans. There is something, after all, called taste. Interpretation need not fall into garish distortion. Of taste, Uchida has much more than a fair share. She doesn't play Webern like a mathematical proof, but in the same way she plays Schubert and Mozart – clearly, simply, with an adult's point of view and experience. The variations, in three movements, last roughly eight minutes. It's really three variation sets. The first movement proceeds A-B-A, roughly statement / counter-statement / recap. Uchida goes beyond note-playing and putting the row permutations front and center (although repeated listening will reveal these as well) to the shaping of an entire movement. She plays music, not notes. My favorite of the score is the third movement, marked "Ruhig fliessend" (quietly flowing), which essentially winds down, ever more softly, to a quiet heart. I suspect that you don't even have to know structurally what goes on to be affected by this.

Depending on whom you talk to or read, the Schoenberg piano pieces, opp. 11 and 19, come either from the composer's early super-chromatic period or from the freely atonal period – that is, atonal but not yet serial. I've never heard the Op. 11 set as anything more atonal than Scriabin. Indeed, the second piece of the set, a worrying of a persistent minor third, seems to me strongly tonal. This does not mean that the music isn't hard, but it's not the difficulty of strangeness. Like the piano concerto, there's a psychic depth and density missing from most other music. Even in a small form, Schoenberg demands a listener's attention. The six Op. 19 pieces – though shorter, more enigmatic and fragmentary, and running about half the time of the triptych of Op. 11 – make even greater demands. Despite their brevity, they convey temporal spaciousness. In character, they call to mind Prokofieff's Visions fugitives. They seem "about" evanescence. My favorite movement, the last and the longest, Schoenberg wrote shortly after Mahler's funeral. It curiously combines stasis and impulse, like the tolling of deep bells, a strike and then a long decay. I'd describe its mood as looking into eternity (not that I know what eternity looks like).

I've never cared for the Berg sonata. Indeed, I don't like most Berg. Wozzeck always seemed to me rather corny, particularly the Sprechstimme, which reminded me of hilariously bad line readings by ham actors. Lulu's a completely different story. Anyway, the sonata encapsulates for me all I object to in Berg's music. It's an adolescent piece, full of unceasing yearning, the piling of climax on climax, a teen-ager bouncing off the walls for no reason other than self-dramatization. I find more great music in the two minutes of the Op. 19 finale than in all of Berg's sonata.

Uchida plays with wisdom and heart. In the concerto, she is ideally partnered by Boulez and the Cleveland – ideal, because the Cleveland still plays with chamber-music sensitivity, more than any other orchestra I've heard. One can easily imagine each player shaping his individual phrase, with due consideration of its proper place and balance in the whole. This performance style fits the chamber-music nature of the concerto like a Saville-Row suit. I say this without putting down Gielen and Brendel – also a great reading. But the level of sheer playing here is so noticeably better, and, I think, a little less self-consciously Expressionist, more concerned with the music speaking for itself. Furthermore, Uchida plays the other stuff superbly. She has gotten inside each work. She's no longer performing by rote but by instinct, and her instincts are mature and sensitive. She understands the differences among Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, the very different landscapes each piece of music inhabits. Her performance of the Berg is the best I've heard. She minimizes the extremes, adding at least five emotional years to the piece. I don't know whether she will win converts – this is by no means a disc for the faint of heart or even for relaxation – but I do believe that fans of these composers will be thrilled.

Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz