Uchida Plays Beethoven and Schubert with Thoughtfulness, Beauty and Care

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (19) – Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Usher Hall, 24.8.2015 (SRT)

Schubert: Impromptus D899

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

Last Friday, Lang Lang came to town.  His EIF debut, a solo recital (he cancelled the planned concerto performance prior to that), was predictably packed out, and exuded showmanship, charisma and razzle-dazzle.  That’s not to undermine his technical prowess, which was phenomenal (nothing short of jaw-dropping in Chopin’s scherzos), and he could afford to show such flamboyance because he was so secure in what he was doing.

Mitsuko Uchida does not work that way, however, and watching her tonight was about as different an experience to Lang Lang as it’s possible to get while still being a piano recital, but wondrously satisfying in its own way.  If Lang Lang is a ringmaster, Uchida is a poet.  Everything about her performances exudes thoughtfulness, beauty and care.  She concentrates so much on her interpretation and on her communication with the audience that there is no room for extraneous show, and she shows perfect inward understanding of what she is playing, almost as though removing the performer and channelling the composer directly.

That inwardness makes her perfect for Schubert, and her playing of the D899 Impromptus was utterly magical.  After the opening unison note, the melody of No. 1 seemed to grope its way tentatively into existence, before sweetening beautifully and with minimal fuss, its repeated rhythm becoming hypnotic towards the end.  The skeletal melody of No. 4, on the other hand, sounded as though Uchida was carefully, delicately selecting the notes from the keyboard, as though choosing a particularly choice morsel from a plate.  Not everything worked, and No. 3 came across as slightly rushed, for all the glorious tone, but this was still pianism of the highest order.

She showed similar insight in the Diabelli Variations which she (rightly) describes as one of the greatest piano pieces ever written.  Right from the start you could tell she had thought profoundly about Beethoven’s finest piano edifice.  Even Diabelli’s theme was played with uncommon sensitivity; no “cobbler’s patch”, this.  Each variation was characterised with individuality, be it the swagger of No. 1, the poetry of No. 8, the delicacy of No. 10 or the humour of No. 15, and I loved the way she could jump from the profound stillness of No. 20 straight into the helter-skelter of No. 21 without so much as a break of the line.  The climax, predictably, came with the astonishing final five variations, mostly slow in tempo, which seemed to mine new depths of inwardness and contemplation, No. 31 sounding hymn-like in places before the final fugue.  Then in a magical transformation into the final Minuet, she seemed ready to take the whole piece into an entirely new direction, as if these variations could go on for ever.  In fact this whole performance of the Diabellis seemed like a study in infinite form, the music continually created as though in orbit around itself.  More than usually, this performance felt like a smorgasbord masterclass of what pianism can be.  Uchida said, in the EIF programme, that “while you are playing, you are discovering the music anew all the time.”  Tonight, you could tell.

Simon Thompson

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