The Sunday afternoon event in the smallish Zankel Hall, a joint recital with clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann, was Dame Mitsuko Uchida’s second appearance at Carnegie Hall over the course of just several days. Surprisingly, she included in the program the same Widmann composition – Sonatina facilethat she played a couple of days earlier in her solo recital in the Stern Auditorium. Dedicated to Uchida and premiered earlier this year, Sonatina facile is one of Widman’s paraphrases – in the Lisztian, transformational sense – on Classical and Romantic opuses. On this occasion, he was inspired by Mozart’s remarkable Piano Sonata in C major, K.545. In a compressed work, he kept the overall Allegro – Andante – Rondo structure of the original but, in fact, the rhythmical pulse is all over the place. The composer mixed freely direct Mozartean quotes with other musical thoughts that can sound at times classical, dissonantly modern or just as “pleasant” fillers. Uchida played the piece with charm, lightness, and as much ironical perspective one can expect from such an introverted artist.

Jörg Widmann © Marco Borggreve
Jörg Widmann
© Marco Borggreve

Widmann is a composer whose body of work has an enormous span, from small instrumental miniatures to full scale operas. Like the oeuvre of some of his visual artist compatriots, from Gerhard Richter and Isa Genzken to Wolfgang Tillmans, Widmann’s “post-modernism” is very difficult to categorize. Freed from allegiance to any kind of orthodoxy, he has produced an extremely eclectic output. His other piece on this program, the older Fantasie for Solo Clarinet (1993) sounds somehow like a surrealist exquisite corpse with the music flowing freely from one motif to the next. It allowed the composer-interpreter to display his phenomenal technique, the incredible dynamic range he can extract from his clarinet.

A program mixing duets and solos started with the Sonata in F minor, Op.120, no. 1, one of the pair of sonatas Brahms wrote late in his career, inspired by the exceptional interpretative gifts of Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms’ days of Romantic Schwung are past. Gone are the soaring melodies, the Hungarian rhythms. Instead, there is a widespread melancholy. The many unresolved dissonances and sparse textures refer back to the late piano pieces but are also forward looking, to the music of the Second Viennese School. As they did during the entire performance, Widmann and Uchida worked as a true partnership rather than a soloist and his accompanist. Their sound balance was close to ideal and the way they anticipated each other’s attacks was outstanding, especially so in the final Vivace.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida © Jean Radel
Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Jean Radel

Echoes of late Brahms could be heard in the immediately following Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5 by Alban Berg. The short composition is obviously indebted to the tonal experiments of Arnold Schoenberg but it lacks any hint of dogmatism. The two interpreters beautifully underlined the equilibrium between conciseness and eloquence that characterizes this opus, navigating con brio through the challenges brought by rapid changes in tempo and dynamics.

Dame Mitsuko started the second part of the recital with a fine version of Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor, D.899, no. 1. She vividly rendered the color contrasts, maintaining, as she always does, a delicate balance between Classical correctness and a Romantic élan. It was a little bit odd though to listen to an isolated Schubert impromptu in this context of lesser known and new works.

Uchida’s Schumann has always had a special quality, privileging the “dreamer” Eusebius in his constant dispute with the effusive Florestan. She exquisitely shaped all the melodic lines in the Fantasiestücke, Op.73. Often interpreted by a cello-piano duo, the three loosely connected segments acquire a special resonance when the original score, featuring clarinet, is used. Closing your eyes and listening to the sweet and malleable sound of Widmann’s instrument in Zart und mit Ausdruck/ Tender and with expression you could almost hear a human voice singing one of Schumann’s Dichterliebe songs.

That both Uchida and Widmann are unsurpassed solo instrumentalists is a truism. That both have a deep understanding and love for chamber music is also well known. What came as a surprise during this afternoon of music making, was the quality of their playing together. It seemed at times that they have been collaborating for decades. It’s a pity that the clarinet – piano duo repertoire is limited. Hopefully, the prolific composer Jörg Widmann has plans that could benefit clarinetist Widmann and his pianist partner.