Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart

Fantasia in C minor, K475
Sonata in C minor, K457
Adagio in B minor, K540
Sonata in F, K533/K494
Sonata in D, K576

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It was with her Mozart recordings some two decades ago that Mitsuko Uchida announced her arrival as an artist of stature (following her earlier appearance at the 1975 Leeds International Piano Competition and a Final in which almost every entrant went on to an international career). Even in these days of Mozart saturation, the piano sonatas are still often-regarded as the poor relation of his instrumental output; a standing which this recital of ‘late’ – or at least ‘later’ – work redressed in decisive fashion.

A lengthy first half began with the segued pairing of the C minor Fantasia and the same-key Sonata, a double-bill that Mozart himself encouraged by publishing the two pieces together. Uchida gave full vent to their strong formal and expressive contrast: the Fantasia emerging as a controlled (just!) improvisation in which stark chordal gestures, limpid melodic writing and angular contrapuntal passages confront each other in music whose tonal trajectory is similarly fraught with uncertainty; the Sonata a tautly-charged drama, the pathos of the Adagio made the more affecting for being enclosed by movements of such propulsive energy (Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata owes much to the precedent).

Played continuously, K457’s surging coda became the outcome of a more extended process – and while the fortepiano of Mozart’s day might well have coped with his technical demands, it could hardly have projected such expressive force with the clarity and impact of a concert grand.

Drama of an altogether more rarefied kind is evident in the B minor Adagio – its searing melancholy barely contained within the modified sonata design, and which links the mannerist Classicism of C.P.E. Bach with the nascent Romanticism of Schubert. Deeply and unnervingly private music, Mozart’s promptness in publishing it is one of the more inexplicable decisions of his last years. Played with the unsparing intensity by Uchida, its uniqueness in his output becomes the more apparent.

The emotional temperature relaxed just a little after the interval.Certainly the F major is the most ingratiating of Mozart’s later sonatas (excepting, of course, the C major, K545)), and Uchida was mindful not to overload the opening Allegro’s intricate polyphony with unwarranted point-making or expressively open-out the Adagio’s strangely removed introspection. Emotional distance – of the kind that could be implied but never actually stated – is equally characteristic of the finale, written 18 months earlier in 1786 and whose appropriateness in context Mozart could never have doubted.

The D major Sonata provided the only possible ending to the recital. Evincing the renewed Classicism (ambiguous term!) of the composer’s last instrumental works (think of the last two string quintets and the ‘Prussian’ string quartets), it has a ‘back to basics’ economy that belies the music’s depths of emotion – whether in the driving momentum of the opening movement, the smouldering sentiment of the Adagio (never for a moment sentimental as Uchida renders it), or the capricious flights of fancy that permeate the finale and bring Mozart’s piano sonatas to a quizzical, even teasing close.

Great Mozart playing by any standards, then, with Uchida having enough in reserve for an unexpected snatch of Schoenberg (the second of the Opus 19 Pieces) before a return to Mozart – so rounding off an evening likely to be among the most absorbing Mozart recitals in London this year.

  • Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 3 May at 7.30
  • Barbican Centre

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