Listening to Dame Mitsuko Uchida tonight in the Großer Saal of the Musikverein, I realized one of the things I love so much about her playing. As someone with a decided faiblesse for art song and chamber music, it is the intimacy of the concertgoing experience that leaves me particularly satisfied. I love opera and big orchestral productions too, but there is something about smaller formats that feed my soul. Uchida has the kind of thoughtful intention and grace in her piano work that makes an audience lean in. She does not play at the audience, nor does she engage in virtuosity for show — nothing is tossed off. She welcomes us in and creates an intentional space of beauty and warmth that we magically get to individually experience, but all together. 

Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Dieter Nail | Musikverein

Her program was woven together by a selection of György Kurtág’s aphoristic Játékok, a series of pedagogical piano games the composer began writing in 1973 which grew to fill ten volumes. These miniatures opened and closed the program as well as tying together its meatier works and are ideally suited to her particular gifts. Uchida found worlds of sound, beginning with the first number Spiel mit dem Unendlichen (Playing with the Infinite) where a descending line beginning at the top of the keyboard steadfastly moved to the bottom, while other gestures punctuated and commented on its journey. Capriccioso-luminoso is a trippingly virtuosic number, while both Hommage à Schubert and Dirge celebrate counterpoint in Kurtág’s distilled idiom. My personal favorite was Einige flüchtige Gedanken über die Alberti-Bässe (Some fleeting thoughts on Alberti basses), bathed in warm pedal, where pianissimo motifs were left to hang in the the ether. 

Two very different Mozart works — Uchida’s bread and butter —showed depth and variety of interpretation. The Fantasia in C minor was presented almost laboriously, as if it were taking shape in her head as she went along. It was a fantasy taken at its name — almost dreamlike, or thoughtfully coming into being for the first time on the spot. At times it honestly made me wonder if Mozart is still considered a classical composer, this certainly felt Romantic, but it was not unconvincing. The Piano Sonata in B flat major was another, leaner animal altogether, filled with sublime light, controlled tempi and grace. The differentiation between the lines, the ability to control and shape sound and the way Uchida approaches every single tone with integrity were all stunning. 

Though a much larger work in its entirety, Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze is also a collection of miniatures; dances where the young composer plays out various polarities of his own self through the prototypes of Florestan and Eusebius. The juxtaposition of Eusebius’ reflective interiority and Florestan’s extrovert energy were wonderful to hear, and Uchida took risks and produced worlds of sound when required, and then turned on a dime and produced a mesmerizing atmosphere of stillness. High points for me were two pieces where both characters appear; Wild und lustig, the thirteenth dance, where Floristan and Eusebius are first united, and the absolutely hypnotic Wie aus der Ferne, the penultimate number.

A more thoughtful and intentional artist is hard to come by today, and one who graces the Musikverein donning fabulous silver shoes on top of her pianistic gifts must be heaven-sent. Long may she reign.