Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert’s final three piano sonatas in Royal Festival Hall

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

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 April, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonAlthough they are never likely to be regarded as an integral cycle, Schubert’s piano sonatas now loom almost as large in the piano repertoire, with the last three (1828) forming a unity comparable to those of Beethoven. Performing them over a single programme also makes for a considerably longer evening, but Mitsuko Uchida lessened this by observing the first movement’s exposition repeat only in the final Sonata. Having established her reputation with the piano music of Mozart, she has made those by his most natural successor central to her recitals these past fifteen years and the prospect of hearing her traverse this final trilogy was an enticing one.

The C minor Sonata is perhaps the most difficult to ‘place’ interpretatively, its combative virtuosity and often-intricate figuration the most overtly indebted to earlier models though with a formal and expressive scope almost equal to its successors. As if conscious of the task that lay ahead, Uchida tended to hurry the opening Allegro – the uneasy coexistence of its edgy and consoling themes rather leavened out in the ensuing haste. Nor did those introspective asides of the Adagio register with true acuity, while the rhythmic punning of the Minuet (a scherzo by any other name) lacked sufficient irony, for all that the deceptive charm of its Ländler trio was precisely done. Most successful was the finale, its perpetual motion (even more remorseless than the corresponding movement in the D minor String Quartet) never unvaried or one-dimensional. Conceptually, however, this is always a treacherous piece to bring off and Uchida fell appreciably short on this occasion.

The A major Sonata was more successful overall (if technically far from flawless), Uchida doing justice to an emotional range ostensibly wider than those sonatas on either side while also effecting a closely integrated unity. The opening Allegro had an imposing but not overly weighty grandeur, while the degree to which its main themes are brought into active opposition during the development was scarcely less well conveyed than the sudden introspection of its coda. If the slow movement was initially a little inert in expression, the gathering violence of its central span was finely prepared and impressively sustained back to a final section whose repose could only seem nominal. Inaccuracies aside, Uchida had the measure of the capricious scherzo and its wistful trio, while the finale’s relatively ample proportions were always in evidence – its eloquent alternation of refrain and episodes given room to breathe without any real doubt as to the movement’s ultimately affirmative goal.

If the A major is the most inclusive of the three works, then the B flat Piano Sonata is the most inwardly intense. Not unreasonably, Uchida rendered it as being of two halves – the opening movement taken at an undoubted Molto moderato yet without losing overall shape or momentum: for once the exposition repeat, prefaced by a truly unnerving transition, was its own justification. Moreover, the limpid clarity sustained here was carried over effortlessly into the Andante, its remote outer sections complemented by a central span whose agitated counterpoint was lucidly conveyed. Uchida barely drew breath before heading into a scherzo of deft wit and charm, a mood hardly broken by its nonchalant trio, before continuing directly into a finale whose constant juxtaposition of arrest and motion yielded the right amount of ambivalence on the way to a decisive and uninhibited close. No perspective of this work could be felt definitive, but Uchida’s can rank with the finest.

Overall, then, an absorbing evening which, whatever its failings, confirmed Uchida as a pianist willing to take risks in her pursuit of this music’s often subliminal essence. The near-capacity audience was for the greater part attentive, though the final Sonata almost inevitably witnessed a falling-off in concentration and it has to be wondered if the Royal Festival Hall is a suitable acoustic for the works – not withstanding that Uchida is an artist ‘big enough’ in personality as well as reputation to justify the choice of venue. What was never in doubt was her commitment to Schubert: a composer whose stature is rarely as evident as in these final piano sonatas.

  • Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)

  • Southbank Centre

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