For her much-anticipated recital in Birmingham Town Hall, Dame Mitsuko Uchida chose two great pieces from the piano repertoire: Schubert’s Four Impromptus Op.90 and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations – an interesting combination of two works which, although composed in close temporal proximity, seem to be far apart in terms of the world of feelings depicted in the music.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida © Jean Radel
Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Jean Radel

Uchida’s rendition of Schubert was lyrical throughout and highly sensitive, sustaining long musical lines and celebrating breathtaking piano effects. The first C minor piece opened with a statement of accentuated octaves, before a gentle and delicate, at times frail soundscape, unravelled, comprising melodies of different characters which appeared to merge into each other. The Impromptu no. 2 in E flat major was full of sparkling scales and floating figures, resulting in a flexible sound tapestry. Uchida handled the subtle transitions between sections with aplomb.

The G flat major impromptu displayed an atmospheric, enchanting sound world, with a calm yet expressive melody over an oscillating background. Here, Uchida once more proved that she is a master of these fine, only just audible tones which nevertheless possess tonal depth. The distinctive arpeggios in the beginning of the Impromptu in A flat major were soon answered by a joyous melody before, in the middle section, a rather doleful, then yearning tone became predominant. The repetitive figures of this section were reminiscent of those in the first piece, suggesting a certain overall coherence and unity of the four pieces.

For Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli Op.120, Uchida returned to the stage with a noticeably altered posture, as if embracing a Beethovenian spirit. She delivered the theme composed by publisher Anton Diabelli in a crisp, energetic and well-articulated manner. While the first variation was evidently derived from the given theme, already in the second variation, Diabelli’s waltz became hardly recognisable – a fact which held true for almost all variations.

When Uchida, so to speak, threw herself into the trill which introduced Variation 6, or when she emphasised the ornamentations in Variation 9, you could sense in her playing the vehemence and insistence that is inherent to Beethoven’s music. On that note, it was not surprising when, in Variation 13, there were some allusions to Beethoven’s late piano sonatas such as the Hammerklavier sonata Op.106. Similar to these works, the Diabelli Variations are characterised by their thematic-motivic density, and their variety in facets, forms and techniques.

In the strikingly fast and light-hearted Variation 10, Uchida illuminated the humorous elements that are also ingrained in Beethoven’s grand work, as she did while highlighting the dissonances of Variation 27. In a sudden contrast to the previous variation which served as an oasis of peace and rest, she hammered the repetitive chords of Variation 21 which were familiar from the theme.

Uchida conveyed the radical, rough moments without overdrawing them. Her sound was always beautiful, sometimes soft and quite smooth so that the fast scales and figures tended to melt into a fine tapestry. While the latter might be ultimately a matter of taste, her interpretation of Beethoven was coherent, impressive and convincing. Following the penultimate variation, a fugue, Uchida remarkably shaped the transition to the last one, a minuet, in which she joyfully engaged as if nothing had happened. Of course, much did happen in this 50-minute musical tour de force, and Uchida’s performance was met enthusiastically by the Birmingham audience.