Mitsuko Uchida at Royal Festival Hall

Rondo in A minor, K511
Variations, Op.27
Piano Sonata No.28 in A, Op.101
Fantasy in C, Op.17

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 20 May, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonIt must be such a temptation for a pianist to try and fill such a non-piano-friendly space as the Royal Festival Hall with sound. Instead, the first phrase of the opening work in Mitsuko Uchida’s recital, Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, was so quiet and waif-like you had to adjust your responses to super-sensitive to hear it, which is how an artist of Uchida’s calibre reeled in her audience for her cleverly balanced and searching programme, in which the pieces, especially the Beethoven and the Schumann, seem to feed off each other.

One of the hallmarks of Uchida’s playing is her finely judged gradation of tone. It gives a work such as the Mozart, which has more the feel of a restively restrained and sad fantasy, a spaciousness that asserted itself by stealth. Another is the scrupulous attention she pays to phrasing, which, especially in the case of classical composers, can seem unbelievably detailed, even fussy, but which gives the music its inner floating world of propulsion and, as was abundantly obvious in the Mozart, a nervy, barely defined stability. This refinement of control can often divert into rather mannered playing, but Uchida managed the balancing act between the minutiae of expressiveness and her vision of the Rondo as a whole with a beady-eyed and -eared discernment that was hugely satisfying.

Webern’s Variations were, if anything, even more extreme in the composer’s demands for tightly graded dynamics that underpin a delicate web of voices. Again, Uchida’s exposure of Webern’s disquieting but eloquent rhetoric gave this brief work timeless implications.

Uchida has only fairly recently taken on Beethoven sonatas (with recordings of the last five in a discography dominated by Mozart – very much a case of diving in at the deep end). You can see her straining every fibre of her musicality to convey extremes of self-communing privacy that, paradoxically, give rise to music of explosive assertion. The oblique opening of the first movement, like a conversation that started a while before the music did, the oddly suspended trio, the floating world of the Adagio with its exuberant release into the finale were folded into an interpretation full of narrative drive and thrilling sense of risk, almost enhanced by a couple of missed notes. The lead back into the finale’s reprise after a fugue of ‘Hammerklavier’-like density was as visceral as I’ve heard it, a true example of late-Beethovenian visionary joy.

You may have heard more barnstorming performances of Schumann’s ardently romantic and virtuosic Fantasy, but Uchida seemed to have a hot line into the music’s mercurial tumble of ideas and its extremes of grandeur and tenderness. The slow-build passion of the final section was miraculously achieved, and in Uchida’s highly-wrought but always coherent interpretation seemed to look forward to the moonlit high romance of Mahler. For once the encores – from Schoenberg’s Opus 19 and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, were a welcome and gentle lowering of the temperature.

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