Doing things without any planning, organisation or rehearsal is one definition of impromptu. The complete opposite of what one might expect from a composer. Or an interpreter. Or a reviewer for that matter. So in the spirit of the musical form, attributed to Johann Baptist Cramer, developed by Vořišek and inspired by Dame Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of both sets of Schubert’s Impromptus, here are eight musings on a very special musical evening.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Richard Cannon

1. The agent and the venue. Sartorially austere, matching the mood of her interpretations, Uchida in a simple pleated top with elbow-length sleeves, the light grey a foil to the dark grey of her trousers and silver boots. An elegant, disciplined presence at the keyboard, straight-backed. No redundant gestures, the mouth occasionally anticipating shifts in harmonic emphasis. The hall itself a contrast: marble surrounds matching the mahogany panelling, brass rails and ornate wall fixtures, mystical frescoes, two large bouquets topped by alliums framing the platform, the subdued hum of voices.

2. Beginnings and endings. The bare G octave that opens the C minor Impromptu delivered with minatory force, resonating into silence. Rippling arpeggios emerging in the A flat Impromptu from the first set, as in the preceding E flat, growing and thickening into teeming water. The first of the D.935 set drawing to its poignant close on waves of loneliness; journey’s end in the final Impromptu asserting itself in a concluding rebellious outburst.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Richard Cannon

3. Echoes and pre-echoes. The DNA connections to Winterreise right from the start. Sideways glances to the composer’s Ave Maria in the third Impromptu from the first set, taken quite slowly and steadily, the prayer-like responses rising ever upwards on airborne currents. From the fourth of the D.899 set, the Wanderer Fantasy registering its presence in the Trio with lyrical intensity. Beethovenian grandeur in spades. More than a hint of the Second Viennese School, not only in the briefest of Schoenberg encores but via the expressionist anguish manifest in individual notes.

4. Tempi. Judicious, without a flickering of rigidity. Like a speaking voice, a quickening of the pace in animation, moments of thematic uncertainty heightened by agogic variations of pace.

5. Tonal palette. At its most bewitching in the penultimate Impromptu of the second set, where Schubert’s theme is developed in succeeding variations. Mottled calico bleached by prolonged exposure to sunlight, then dappled greys, cobalt-blue edges marking the steeliness in some of the runs right through to charcoals aggravating the penumbra.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida receiving the Wigmore Hall Medal from HRH The Duke of Kent
© Richard Cannon

6. The left hand. Perhaps the greatest revelation of the evening. Repeated rumbles of thunder in the background adding to the weight and gravity of the performance, rising from near inaudibility to a scalp-stretching intensity in the C minor Impromptu. Astonishing power and force.

7. The storytelling. Uchida never lost her gift for recreating a narrative line, at its strongest in the very last of these eight pieces. In the rhythm of an écossaise the trotting of horses pulling a carriage, heading through the murk as the hour approaches midnight, the postillion gasping in the biting winds, pausing to consider: are we heading in the right direction, have we taken a wrong turning? Doubts magically exposed in the phrasing.

8. Affective states. Reiterated expressions of defiance initiated by stentorian chords and the commanding left hand: I’m here, I’ll not be moved. A rare warm embrace at the start of the A flat Impromptu from the second set. Elsewhere agonising chills and lengthening shadows from the poet of loneliness.

A footnote: Uchida, marking her half-centenary as an artist appearing at this venue, was presented with the Wigmore Hall Medal in recognition of her achievements.

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