Uchida Points Up Composer’s Other Gift: The Clarinet

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida performed with clarinetist-composer Jörg Widmann at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.
(Photo by Stefan Cohen)
By George Loomis

NEW YORK — When Mitsuko Uchida plays a new piano sonata in a Carnegie Hall recital, you can bet the composer will want to be there, even if it means making a transatlantic trip. The German composer Jörg Widmann proved to be no exception, but he didn’t just sit in the audience, beaming like a proud parent during the New York premiere of Sonatina facile on March 30, after performances in Hamburg and elsewhere.  He also brought his clarinet along and on April 2 teamed up in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall for a program of chamber music with Uchida herself.

Widmann played Widmann, Berg, Brahms, and Schumann.
(Marco Borggreve)

Happily, the 14-minute Sonatina facile was again on the program, emerging as a highpoint of the afternoon yet hardly the only one. Still, in an age blessed with clarinet virtuosos — names like Sabine Meyer and Martin Fröst come to mind — Widmann’s playing initially seemed more admirable than truly special. Even with Uchida as his partner, the discursive first movement of Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1, failed to coalesce, nor did the second movement come across with all the magic of its lyricism.

More satisfying were Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 5, an early exercise in atonalism in the form of Webern-like miniatures. Widmann produced some exquisite, hushed dynamic effects and responded positively to melodic lines that sometimes bore a hint of late-Romantic expressivity. Nor were allusions to tonality entirely absent, with the second piece showing a distinct partiality to a major third in the piano part, eloquently reiterated by Uchida.

The work overall has a somber tone, which set up an appealing change of mood when Widmann turned to his own whimsical Fantasie for Solo Clarinet (1993). Conceived in the spirit of commedia dell’arte, the six-minute work is full of amusing sounds, including suggestions of the rising opening glissando of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and a few notes that sounded like the buzzing of an alarm clock. At one point the underlying comedy apparently became quite frenzied, judging from the rapid passagework Widmann ably dispatched.

The concert’s main rewards came in the second half. The brilliant Sonatina facile revealed itself to be as rich in substance as it was entertaining, but it hardly lives up to its title. This piece is anything but easy; instead, “facile” alludes to Mozart’s little Sonata in C, K. 545, which serves as an starting point for parody, deconstruction, and imaginative flights. In the outer movements especially, familiar fragments from Mozart’s sonata frequently appear, only to break off unexpectedly or wander into distant keys. Sometimes Widmann treats Mozart’s thematic ideas as if he were reworking them for a cadenza, but in a modern idiom. Elsewhere, he subjects them to contrapuntal interplay with almost Bach-like ingenuity.

At Carnegie Hall, Uchida prefaced the Widmann sonatina with Schubert.
(Justin Pumfrey/Decca)

Although certain moments cannot help but amuse, humor was clearly not high on Widmann’s compositional agenda. The modernistic second movement, slow and lacking in pulse, rarely quotes from its source; rather, it calls for the pianist’s hands to be far apart, often emphasizing individual notes, sometimes jabbing them out. Uchida seemed superbly at one with the music, no matter where it ventured stylistically.

The concert omitted a treat included in Uchida’s recital, namely her performance of the Mozart sonata, a piece someone once said was so easy only a child could play it. I heard the recital program (in Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Mich., on March 24) and can vouch for a performance that, with its striking pianissimos and other nuanced moments, would bring credit to a pianist of any age.

Here, Uchida prefaced the new sonatina with a searching performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor, D. 899, No.1. It’s hard to imagine a short piano piece getting closer to what Schubert was all about than this one, which touches on the bleakness of Winterreise while also drawing on Schubert’s lyricism at its most spontaneous.

The concert ended with an enchanting performance of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73. Here, Widmann, who had the work memorized, sounded like a new man. In the first movement he and Uchida brought out the music’s poetry by stretching out its melodies ever so slightly, and overall the work had an unassuming freshness. Further, Widmann made what would seem to be an airtight case that these pieces, though sometimes played by violists and cellists, do indeed sound best on the clarinet, the instrument for which they were originally written.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.