Mitsuko Uchida's recordings of Schumann's "Carnaval" and "Kreisleriana" (Philips 442 777-2) are the first made by this celebrated pianist since serious illness and major surgery interrupted her career more than two years ago. One can report with gratitude that these performances show no perceptible losses in either Uchida's strength or dexterity.
Interpretively, however, only one performance shows Uchida at her best. When the Japanese-British pianist performed "Carnaval" at the Kennedy Center three years ago, one needed to fight to keep awake. This recorded "Carnaval" has the same effect. This is immensely competent playing in which the requisite elements of rapture and fantasy are missing. Like Rachmaninoff (who made the best recording of the piece in 1929, still available on a BMG disc) and Ashkenazy (his superb NTC Carnaval" can be found on a London CD), she adopts fast tempos; unlike them, she doesn't successfully characterize the more than two dozen vignettes that comprise "Carnaval."
How any pianist can play "Carnaval" so indifferently and perform Kreisleriana" so well is a mystery. Uchida does magnificently in holding this sometimes rambling work together. Her playing is disciplined, cultivated and communicates the music's poetry.
Any recording by the great Italian pianist Maria Tipo is sure to delight piano aficionados, and her new recording of Chopin's "Nocturnes" (EMI Classics 5 55073 2) is no exception. The playing on this two-CD set shows all the ravishing pianism that has made Tipo a cult figure, but this is not a recording that should be acquired by first-time buyers. Tipo never descends to preciousness or affectation, but her refined, sophisticated pianism -- while always beautiful and fascinating to listen to -- is not ideally suited to the earlier nocturnes of opus 9, opus 15 and opus 27.
Her approach to these early pieces may strike orthodox Chopinists as over-fussy and deliberate. She over-interprets the opening eighth notes of the B-flat minor nocturne of the opus 9 set, and her playing in the D-flat piece in opus 27 simply sounds too subtle. But the complex way in which Tipo builds phrases pays huge dividends in the later nocturnes, which are more sophisticated melodically and harmonically than the earlier ones. Her reading of the great C minor nocturne in opus 48, for example, is startlingly original and effective. She plays this piece more slowly than any pianist this listener has heard -- without sacrificing the long line to inner details. She begins the central section so slowly that its stormy octave outburst takes the listener by surprise, creating more drama than it otherwise might.
From opus 48 to the composer's final nocturnes of opus 62 in B major and E major, Tipo rides the heights. The two final nocturnes rank among the greatest ever recorded. The phantasmagoric trills in the B major are rendered with a Beethoven-like sense of nobility and prophecy, and the pastels of the E major have rarely been applied with such exquisite shading and heart-easing effect.
HEAR THE MUSIC
To hear an excerpt from Maria Tipo playing Chopin's "Nocturnes," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, press the four-digit code 6190 after the greeting.