SCHOENBERG:  Piano Concerto, Op. 42.  Drei Klavierstücke, Op.11.  Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19.  WEBERN:  Variations, Op. 27.  BERG:  Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Mitsuko Uchida, pianist/Cleveland Orch/Pierre Boulez, cond.

PHILIPS 468 033 (F) (DDD)  TT:  63:23

The concerto that Schoenberg composed in 1942 for Eduard Steuermann (who introduced it with Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony in February 1944) has not been neglected on discs, although several versions were withdrawn before newer ones came along to replace them. Glenn Gould's was the first in 1953, with the CBC Vancouver Symphony, still listed in the Canadian company's "„Perspective"series, now on a CD which includes the same solo pieces from the Second Viennese School that Mitsuko Uchida plays, plus Schoenberg's Suite, Op. 25.

Alfred Brendel has recorded the concerto at least twice, first for German FSM with Steuermann's nephew, Michael Gielen, conducting the SWDR Orchestra of Baden-Baden; then for DGG with Rafael Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Both were paired with the Violin Concerto of 1935-36, altogether a hairier piece, although a Philips' CD of possibly another SWDR version by Brendel and Gielen couples the two Chamber Symphonies (Opp. 9 and 38). In 1967, Peter Serkin recorded it lyrically for RCA with Seiji Ozawa and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but that had only a brief lifespan. In 1992 Emanuel Ax addressed the piece in London with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, issued by Sony with the two Liszt Piano Concertos—an even weirder coupling than  the Schumann Concerto on DGG's remake in the 1980s by Maurizio Pollini, Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. (The Schumann only survives in DGG's Master Series, abroad if not here, along with Arabesque and Etudes symphoniques.) Ironically, while Pollini's Schoenberg is gone, DGG has recycled Brendel's older one as a "20th Century Classic" with the addition of two violin concertos—Schoenberg's, still the Zvi Zeitlin version, and Alban Berg's as well, played by Henryk Szeryng with Kubelik and the BRSO.

I don't pretend to know all of these, or to love the Schoenberg Piano Concerto. It's a piece you come to admire when you've spent some time inside of it, and discovered a bunch of atonal waltzes in symphonic form—although not, please note, 12-tone themes. Whether Schoenberg was mellowing or in search of more performances (because he did need money; UCLA paid him a niggardly salary), his "American" works were a retreat from total serialization. To audiences, however, his name was anathema; 60 years since his death, it remains so for many. Philips' new release is not so much a testimony to his mainstream acceptance as it is to the admirable clout of Uchida and Boulez, to whom Philips has donated the impeccable resources of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Their temperaments mesh impressively. Her sinuous phrasing, sense of whimsical fantasy and elegant tonal reserves, coupled with the advantage of having lived and studied in Vienna, contrast sharply with the heavier sound and sobriety of Brendel and Pollini (who, by the way, share the same birthday, January 5)—which is not say that either of them stands outside the music. Uchida, however, succeeds in imparting a comparable nuanced subtlety to the concerto, and the appended solo pieces,  that she brought to the concertos of Mozart and the sonatas of Schubert. Listen to Brendel's and Pollini's performances of those same works; the contrast says more than 10,000 words on Uchida's bewitching behalf.

Boulez is a cooler customer, which should surprise hardly anyone at this late stage in his life and career. Only Gielen among the competition can outduel him interpretively in Second-Viennese- School repertory, but he lacked a Cleveland Orchestra to work with. In any event, Boulez is a veteran Schoenbergian, and can waltz, it turns out, on the same ballroom floor as Uchida. Beyond that, however, she makes even a curmudgeon replay her performances of Webern's totally serialized Variations, Op. 27, Schoenberg's two sets of Klavierstücke, and the Berg Sonata, Op. 1, which in this company is almost decadently opulent, more Jugendstil than Schoenberg's Bauhausstil. But then Berg in life was Aaron to Schoenberg's Moses, and Schoenberg knew it. Beyond both of them, Webern evolved an artistic aceticism in astonishing contrast to the disoganized private life that never got beyond adolescence. But it is the artist Uchida honors, indeed ennobles in these solo performances, recorded most beautifully at Munich during December 1998. Brava, bravissima; and bravo, too, for Philips.

R.D. (AUG. 2002)