Mitsuko Uchida did not so much walk onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Friday night as bound. No, it wasn't quite that either. Rather, it was as though she had been connected to the piano by a taut, invisible rubber band that had suddenly been released. She was pulled by an elastic force to the instrument--and it seemed to take possession of her and propel the music.
Uchida's mastery of this elastic force gives her playing a rare, fascinating animation and intensity. For her latest recital here, she did not stray far from reliable composers who are central to her repertoire--Chopin, Mozart and Schubert--as they are to that of most pianists (only Webern was the exception). But there was nothing at all ordinary about how she made them sound.
First came Chopin's Second Sonata, the one known as the "Funeral March" for its third movement. Uchida landed on her bench and her left hand on the octave D flats at about the same instant. Then, extraordinarily, she seemed to stop, suspended in time for a second in the slow four-bar introduction as she built up a thick chord and let it hang in midair before catapulting into the movement proper with wrenching urgency.
Most recitals take a while to get going, for a performer to warm up, an audience to settle down, for player and listener to get to know each other. That is particularly true with the piano, which is a cool, percussive instrument. But Uchida dispenses with those formalities altogether. Within a matter of these few seconds, we were in her hands.
Uchida is different from other pianists in another way as well. At one extreme there are the pianists who are kinetic extroverts, say a Horowitz, whose every gesture was meant to amaze his audience. At the other extreme can be the absorbing introverts, say a Pollini, whose playing is a personal connection with music that a listener is invited to share. Most pianists fall somewhere along the continuum. With Uchida, introvert and extrovert exist together, inseparable.
Chopin's Funeral March, for instance, was sheer percussion in her vehement, unwaveringly ringing tone, yet it was out of this carillon that the movement's consoling melody seemed to rise, not as contrast but as something that was always there, only needing the pianist to pull it out and show us. (A sense of just how effective a spell she cast was revealed in the noticeable outbursts of anger from listeners around me who were jolted back to reality by an audience member's ringing cell phone.) Technically, Uchida is a marvel, and the last movement, a furious sweep of triplets, was played in a single breath that left the audience gasping but the artist herself merrily smiling.
Uchida has a connecting mind. She is marvelous in her ability to unify a long movement or even a long sonata. In the first movement of his big, discursive, 35-minute D Major Sonata, Schubert constantly changes direction--bang out a couple of chords, switch to soft and flighty triplets, then repeat it all over again, and again. But Uchida, who knows no difference between ferocity and delicacy and no difference between propulsion and elasticity, devoured the movement and the sonata. She was clangorous and exciting and, in the second movement, exquisitely golden toned, but she gave the impression of this being all part of the same thing. It all made sense.
Her generous applications of mental glue can also lead to eccentricity. Between the sonatas, Uchida programmed two short works--Webern's abstract Variations and Mozart's melancholy Adagio in B Minor--and stuck them together without pause. Moreover, she infused Webern with a tremendous emotional fervor, coloring every small melodic kernel, and she gave Mozart the expressionistic force of modern music. It was a daring, disconcerting but powerfully revealing experiment.
The encores came from Bach's Fifth French Suite and Mozart's Piano Sonata, K. 330. Uchida made her name on the Mozart sonatas, which she plays with life-affirming warmth and energy. Bach, thus far, she has kept mostly for herself. This brief, exquisite example indicated what a pity that is.