Why do the house numbers go up on one side of a small London road and back down on the other? Whatever the reason, it was cause for a familiar scene – a quartet of musicians dragging their instruments on their backs, wandering around another foreign city, not quite sure where to go. Once we figured out which one was actually Mitsuko’s house and rang the bell, we had another question – whose voice was that calling out to us so enthusiastically from behind that door? Does she have children?
Sure enough, it was she – after all of the concerts and videos and live recordings that we had seen, we found ourselves standing on a cold, damp and grey London afternoon exchanging hugs with Mitsuko Uchida and following her across the way to her studio so she could take us through the Brahms Piano Quintet. Thinking about all of the chamber music lessons we have taught in the traditional way – score in hand and holding forth on string quartets – we couldn’t help but look a bit sheepish when she explained that, although the work goes faster listening to a group from the outside, she prefers to work from the inside, both making mistakes and learning together. It was simply fairer, she insisted. Something to think about for the future.
We read through the complete quintet first, facing her and with our backs to where the audience would have been. We did our best to listen and let her lead us, an approach that was met with a loud burst of friendly laughter as she felt that at every corner we were waiting. By the time we played through the first movement again, it already made more sense, flowed better and didn’t get so lost on its way. Then the real work of the day began. It is not that Mitsuko dazzled us with esoteric philosophical insights or abstruse musicological details; it was through the joy of watching her musical process, almost hearing her think out loud, that we learned the most.
Far from pronouncing unequivocal truths about the piece, she explained to us how she herself had struggled with various musical dilemmas and how she arrived at her own conclusions. What does Brahms actually want with mezzo-forte in the opening unison melody? She concurred that her original instinct was to play it ethereally, as if from far away. But perhaps that was exactly what Brahms didn’t want, she showed us, with a gesture indicating the backbone of the melody. Perhaps it is not an introduction, but rather the true beginning of the sonata form.
But why, Mitsuko asked herself, did certain crucial harmonic moments not come alive? It was fascinating to watch her noodle around the piano, playing the chords at the beginning of the development, muttering that there had to be a center somewhere and trying to find how we could orientate ourselves to it. Where was the note that changed the harmonic direction? More than any verbal explanation, it was the expressiveness of her singing voice that showed us how a certain depth and quality of sound let the listener know that the piece was no longer on its previously plotted course.
And why was the return to the recapitulation not properly prepared? She searched through the voices, listened for balance, examined how motives were passed between instruments, and slowly refined our approach until the theme was properly set up and a return to f-minor was inevitable. For Mitsuko, it seemed so often to be a question of which musical expectations were created and what Brahms did to thwart them. What is one to make of a recapitulation that heads firmly into a second theme one half-step away from the “correct” key? And how exactly should the timing and the color be realized in the strings, when, precisely at the moment when it slips back down to f-minor, we find ourselves playing alone?
Perhaps in the end we were left with more questions than answers, more a way of hearing and feeling a piece of music, than with directives to fulfill for the next time. Perhaps this is what we had hoped for after all, to be able to see a familiar piece in a new way and have our ears opened to greater musical possibilities.