For those accustomed to seeing the stage of Severance Hall filled with members of The Cleveland Orchestra, it was a bit jarring entering the hall Sunday afternoon to the sight of a lone grand piano. This was the setting in which Dame Mitsuko Uchida worked her magic in a selection of three of Schubert’s piano sonatas, each from a distinct period in the composer’s all too brief career. Uchida is a familiar face on this stage, having appeared as a concerto soloist innumerable times, and local audiences could count themselves lucky to also have the opportunity to experience her pianistic poetry in the context of a solo recital.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida performs Schubert in Cleveland © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Dame Mitsuko Uchida performs Schubert in Cleveland
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The Piano Sonata no. 4 in A minor – written when Schubert was just twenty – boasted an arresting opening, encouraged by the snap of the dotted rhythms and delivered with a rippling torrent of energy – quite a departure for this generally soft-spoken composer. A more delicate, lyrical theme offered contrast, yet the stormy mood prevailed in the movement’s coruscating conclusion. The gently rollicking theme of the central movement – familiar from its subsequent reworking in the finale of the A major sonata (D959) – was a joy to the ears in its gracefulness.

Much like the “Unfinished” Symphony, the extant two-movement torso of the Piano Sonata no. 15 in C major is in of itself deeply fulfilling. While one cannot help but wonder what direction the work would have taken had Schubert completed it, there’s an undeniable grandeur to these two movements, especially in Uchida’s conception. Matters opened in a barren unison, pointing towards piercing octaves, and a haunting, goosebumps-inducing theme. The pianist here and throughout the program was fastidious about observing the often extensive repeats – in this work, the composer’s oft-cited notion of “heavenly length” was crystallized – yet never was there a dull moment with Uchida’s silken touch. The forlorn beginnings of the Andante gave way to a lushness delectably lyrical in spite of stern interjections in octaves.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida performs Schubert in Cleveland © Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Dame Mitsuko Uchida performs Schubert in Cleveland
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Schubert’s final entry in the medium, the Piano Sonata no. 21 in B flat major, is a monument of the piano literature, written in the final months of the composer’s life – a mere eleven years since the first work on the program. By happy coincidence, Cleveland audiences will be fortunate enough to hear the work again next week in Till Fellner’s recital at the Cleveland Chamber Music Society. Uchida’s tone was utterly divine, the chordal procession over an undulating bass given to wondrous effect. The opening movement is a lengthy expanse, yet the pianist had a keen sense of the long-scale architecture, as if serving as a guide on a spiritual journey. The development was of striking harmonic shifts, accentuated not through bombast but by subtlety and understatement.

The crossing gesture of the left-hand was all that kept time from standing still in the glacial vista of the Andante sostenuto, but in the central section, the severity opened up into music of rapturous beauty, holding the audience spellbound. The opening material resurfaced with the addition of an ominous rumbling in the bass, a nod towards the similar motif in the first movement. Uchida’s fingers took flight in the ineffable charm of the Scherzo, a featherlight foil to the weight of the preceding, and gave the trio a stylish abandon. The finale offered jocular material, executed with an entrancing weightlessness, as well as the more dramatic for which Uchida mustered the requisite firepower. A mesmerizing performance, and one that should surely quell any doubts that piano recitals at Severance Hall should be a regular event.

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