South Bank International Piano Series – Mitsuko Uchida (14 March)

Drei Klavierstücke, Op.11
Sonata in G, D894
Fantasie in C, Op.17

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 14 March, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Schubert’s G major sonata is a formidable challenge – far more difficult than its innocent, charming and insouciant themes suggest. It is very long, repetitive in every way (notes, motifs and structures) and can therefore sound tedious in indifferent performance. Moreover, it is very awkwardly written for the fingers in every way an immense test and a brave choice for the concert hall. Mitsuko Uchida’s deeply musical performance, making light of all technical problems, and engaging the listener’s attention throughout, was further evidence she is now the world’s leading interpreter of Schubert.

In her programme note, Uchida described the sonata as if “floating in a dream”.Her performance, ethereal and dance-like by turn, produced precisely the enchantment to disguise the work’s length and potentially problematic nature.Whether in varying the voicing of the repeated chords in the first movement’s opening subject, blending the ingenuous slow movement theme with angry episodes, or spinning the endless rondo of the Finale, Uchida was, as ever, the most persuasive of advocates for Schubert as a song-writer for the keyboard.And in the Trio of the Minuet, where Schubert’s ppp marking is difficult to realise, Uchida produced a magical music-box effect, imaginative beyond criticism.

While Schumann’s sensitivity and lyricism perfectly suit Uchida’s virtues, his heroism and bombast are less naturally her pianistic qualities. So it was that the Fantasie’s ’March’, with a generous ration of wrong notes, produced a hardening of piano tone and a loss of interpretative direction, as Uchida strove vainly for the last ounce of virtuosity. The first movement had been more successful, carefully crafted, and its second subject especially beautiful, though still flawed technically and in periodically uncertain. Uchida was not completely restored until the meditative, love-filled Finale, where her long verse-paragraphs, hushed pianissimo tone and perfectly weighted chorale-like chords were utterly compelling.

Shaped as Uchida was by her student days in Vienna, it is unsurprising she has an affinity with the Second Viennese School. Schoenberg’s Three Pieces, with their tinge of late-Romanticism, were by turns fleet, precise and deeply felt, the musicality of their phrasing and the care of their presentation overcoming any difficulties the audience might have had. The feather-light end to the first, and indeed the elfin performance of the Schoenberg encore (from Op.19), were moments to treasure.

Uchida often tantalises audiences with baroque encores – her touch, phrasing and scholarship should be well suited to more Bach or Scarlatti than she offers us. The movement from one of Bach’s G major French Suite was no exception, a miniature jewel as perfect as the Mozart slow movements with which her recitals usually conclude.

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