Mitsuko Uchida: Memorable in Schubert’s Last Three Piano Sonatas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom SchubertMitsuko Uchida (piano), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.4.2012 (CC)

Piano Sonata in C minor, D958
Piano Sonata in A, D959
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

The idea of Schubert’s last three sonatas played back-to-back in one concert is a successful one, even if it makes for a long evening.  In 2007, Elisabeth Leonskaja played exactly this programme at the Wigmore Hall in a most memorable event. Then, I contrasted Leonskaja to Uchida, referring to her keeping the music ‘at arm’s length’ in contrast to Uchida (or Imogen Cooper). Interesting that perhaps the intimacy heard in Uchida’s now almost legendary Philips recordings of this repertoire was not as marked in the present Festival Hall recital, but in its place was a remarkable ability to do justice to each sonata’s individual sound world.

Thus it was that in the C minor Sonata (all three sonatas hail from 1828) we were presented with a harsher sound than one has come to expect from Uchida. The hard attacks were partnered by an approach that found Uchida using little pedal. There was the distinct feeling that she was painting a very particular sound world. The Adagio found her projecting a perfect marriage of simplicity and emotional depth. There was a phantasmagorical surreality to the jagged sforzandi, which found solace in the fluid and fluent Menuetto. The nervous energy, the spiky cross-hands of the finale reminded us of the fierce undercurrents at work here. This was unsettling Schubert – as it should be, one might easily argue.

The A major Sonata took us to another destination, one of richer sound worlds coupled with almost Mozartian charm. Uchida acted as our guide to Schubert’s labyrinthine exploration of his musical materials. The sense of exploration, or attempted liberation from harmonic and temporal space was heightened in the Andantino. Here, the famous episode, or more accurately explosion, of rawness (described by Uchida as a ‘the greatest mad scene’) was perhaps not as raw as I have heard it (Imogen Cooper springs to mind), yet the movement as a whole in Uchida’s hands still emerged as deeply disturbing. If the third movement held moments in which we could bathe in Uchida’s beauty of sound, it was the finale that emerged as the finest achievement, beautifully sculpted and presented.

I know not what disturbance got Uchida’s attention just before she embarked upon the great D960, but I wish I had been close enough to see whether or not that was a Paddington stare she was giving to the audience. Once under way, though, rapt concentration was all. Uchida’s sound this time was gorgeously warm, befitting the burnished, rich flow of ideas. Nothing was superfluous, or frivolous for that matter (the most un-jocular staccato I think I have come across). Interesting how the solo bass trill was not threatening here, more a remembrance of distant thunder heard from beyond the veil, post-transition (as Uchida puts it, “It’s as if you’re already on the other side”). The Andante sostenuto was a masterpiece of concentrated thought, if less stark than her Philips recording. The fabulous rhythmic play of the Scherzo gave way to a finale where perhaps one could pick up the physical tiredness encroaching (hardly surprisingly given the evident sheer effort she had put into her playing throughout). Yet that is not to demean her achievement. Uchida’s Schubert is ever magnificent, and – here’s the point – evidently evolving still. Surely, the mark of a great artist.

Colin Clarke