fri 19/04/2024

Mitsuko Uchida, Royal Festival Hall review - conviction and grace | reviews, news & interviews

Mitsuko Uchida, Royal Festival Hall review - conviction and grace

Mitsuko Uchida, Royal Festival Hall review - conviction and grace

Sophisticated and fragile Schubert, delivered with exquisite beauty

Mitsuko Uchida: 'an intensity to her sound, a sense of inner conviction'Decca/Justin Pumfrey

Mitsuko Uchida continues her world tour of Schubert sonatas with two concerts for the home crowd, this the second of her appearances at the Festival Hall.

The tour coincides with Uchida’s 70th birthday, but the years have done little to diminish her technique. And Schubert is an excellent choice, arguably her strongest suit – perhaps a joint first with Mozart – though her many recordings and performances in the past are little preparation for her always unpredictable approach.

Schubert’s piano sonatas make demands on the pianist, both in technique and interpretation, and every player approaches them differently. Melody is everywhere in this music, there’s barely a bar without it, and many pianists will ride the tune, applying lots of pedal for a smooth, lyrical wash of sound. But Uchida is different. Her pedalling is modest and she always focuses on the inner textures as much as the melodies, finding just as much interest and beauty there. She rarely plays loud, yet there is an intensity to her sound, a sense of inner conviction expressed through carefully voiced chords and subtly graded dynamics. And when she reaches a climax, her hands shake as she holds down the keys, more from the effort of expression than the physical demand.

There is a distinctive quality to Uchida’s sound, always apparent from the first note she plays. It’s a combination of that gentle but definite touch and a keen intelligence applied to details of rubato. This recital covered early, middle and late Schubert, and the early sonata that opened, in A Minor, D 537, really benefitted from that sophistication. This is straightforward music, and Uchida allowed the melodies to sing and the conventional chord progressions to progress. But already in the opening phrases there were surprises: nothing here was treated as decoration, with ornaments emphatically delivered, and accompanying runs played with conviction and drive. Yet tempos were steady, and the phrasing tempered the emphatic gestures, often demurring to quiet and introspective cadences.

In Uchida’s hands, the mystical and transcendental qualities all come to the fore

The Sonata in C Major, D 840, the “Relique”, is mature Schubert, and the ideal vehicle for Uchida’s pianism. The simple opening, in octaves, gives us an early taste of the character she will bring to the melodies. The music then grows, but Uchida gives the impression of growing complexity rather than volume, the denser the textures the more haunting her tone. The second movement builds gradually, this time to more emphatic cadences, which structure the otherwise continuous flow of melody. And when the melody transfers to the left hand, Uchida’s right plays ghostly, ethereal chords above – a chilling effect. Schubert’s melodies always have a feeling of inevitability, yet Uchida makes them unpredictable too, even in the many repetitions. The sonata is incomplete, but this slow movement has an eloquent and wholly sufficient coda. Yet Uchida maintains the suspense until the very end, making each interjection sound more final than the last, teasing out a narrative from Schubert’s formal rhetoric.

The D 960 Sonata in B flat is one of Schubert’s final works, and late music in every sense. In Uchida’s hands, the mystical and transcendental qualities all come to the fore. It’s a long piece but the concentration and focus that she commits to the performance is easily transmitted to the audience (a capacity crowd at the Festival Hall). All those microscopic changes of tempo and colour made this an infinitely varied performance. One of the defining features of the first movement is a rumbling trill at the very bottom of the keyboard: Uchida played this unevenly, and different every time. The undulating chordal accompaniment was as important in the first movement as the melody itself, though both were of exquisite beauty. In the slow second movement, the melody finally came to the fore, a continuous arc across the entire movement, over subtly graded harmonies. A nimble and lively Scherzo provided welcome contrast, the lightness of Uchida’s touch drawing sparkling sonorities from the RFH Steinway.

The finale is a declamatory conclusion rather than a sentimental farewell. But Uchida finds complexity and paradox here. She plays down the contrasts of tempo and dynamic in the dance-like main theme, emphasising continuity and flow. She had a brief memory lapse in the last few minutes (the whole programme was played from memory), but recovered well, finding an ideal balance in the coda: Schubert’s emphatic conclusion, she seems to say, is hiding a deeper uncertainly. Uchida made sure the inner turmoil continued right up to the final chord.



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