Dark undercurrents and reserve in Uchida’s Cleveland recital

United StatesUnited States Schubert: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, 3.11.2019. (MSJ)

Mitsuko Uchida at Severance Hall (c) Roger Mastroianni

Schubert – Piano Sonata in A minor D537; Piano Sonata in C major D840; Piano Sonata in B-flat major D960

The Cleveland Orchestra is in the midst of an absorbing season full of numerous programming threads, some continued from last season. One of those is the music of Schubert, including symphonies, masses, and songs. In an enterprising addition, the great Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida was invited to play a program of the composer’s piano sonatas.

Uchida has closely collaborated with the orchestra for many years, recording crystalline versions of Mozart piano concerti. She is probably most famous for her Mozart, but her quietly intense Schubert is equally fine. In particular, Uchida’s reserved but flexible classicism fits perfectly with the Cleveland style: no grandstanding, but no smoothing over the unsettling edges, either.

The program opened with Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D.537, one of several the composer wrote when he was 20. At the time, he was trying to leave school teaching behind him and make it as a professional composer. Uchida brought out the sense of vitality, emphasizing that while the sonata’s home key is A minor, this isn’t particularly dark music. Rather, there’s a sense of youthful angst and drama, belied by the delicately playful slow movement. This is a great artistic visionary taking his first steps out into the world, and Uchida found that sense of adventure.

What a leap from that to the second work, the rarely heard unfinished Sonata in C major, D.840. Though only eight years had passed since the previous sonata, by this point Schubert had distilled his creative powers. Schubert left a few unfinished pieces around this period, suggesting that he was having trouble figuring out how to balance large works as each movement grew larger and more visionary — each section of these new works containing an entire world. For that reason, the unfinished B minor symphony, the C minor Quartettsatz, and this sonata stand alone quite satisfyingly.

In the unfinished sonata, Uchida allowed Schubert his expansiveness, patiently following the ideas as they unfolded. Uchida let the melodies sing luxuriously, without giving them an operatic push. Most often, her dynamics were quiet and shaded, making note of the dark shadows beginning to lurk under the mostly serene opening movement, which then dominated the slow movement. With such discursiveness, it is debatable about the need for taking exposition repeats, but Uchida did. With such glorious playing on display, no one minded.

After intermission, still fighting the cold which had forced her to bring a handkerchief onstage, Uchida’s reading of Schubert’s final sonata was perfection — no matter what ailment may have been trying her. Starting almost casually, the pianist kept the first low trill in the bass soft and understated, pacing herself for the journey. But each time the unsettling trill returned, Uchida gave it more volume, more edge, building up to a frightening intensity at the height of the movement — written by a dying man, only 31 years old, who knew he was dying. Uchida slowly brought out the dark undercurrents that begin to undermine the large structure.

The funereal slow movement was breathtaking. With left hand notes sounding like muffled drumbeats and the right hand like tolling bells, Schubert confronted his imminent end — which came just a few weeks later — and Uchida gave the sequence hushed seriousness. There was no hyped-up drama, no histrionics, just the unflinching certainty of life and death. After this stunning display, the enthralled audience attempted to break out into applause, but Uchida immediately flung herself into the nervous energy of the Scherzo, followed by the anxious but hesitant finale, proving in the final exultant coda that she can unleash a big torrent of sound from the instrument when required.

She received a standing, cheering, shouting ovation from the audience, who finally let her depart after she gave a polite cough, begging off an encore.

 Mark Sebastian Jordan

1 thought on “Dark undercurrents and reserve in Uchida’s Cleveland recital”

  1. Thanks, Mark, that’s a wonderfully perceptive review. Regarding the repeats of the expositions, I am all in favor, and I was especially glad she did so for the C major sonata, which was completely unfamiliar to me. The similarities between its first movement and that of D. 960 are striking. I always think of D. 960 as the “Adeste Fidelis” sonata, because of the octave passage to which one could sing “O come let us adore him.” And the same thing happens in the C major!


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