As part of this year’s International Piano Series at the Southbank Centre, Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida gave a highly absorbing and exquisitely presented performance of works by Bach, Schoenberg and Schumann. Dressed in simple black trousers and a shimmering turquoise top, whose gossamer-light flowing sleeves gave her the appearance of an exotic butterfly when she lifted her arms to play, she scurried onto the stage at the start of the concert, smiling broadly and, after a smartly-executed bow, launched straight into the opening bars of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C BWV870, almost before she had sat down at the piano.

Mitsuko Uchida © Richard Avedon
Mitsuko Uchida
© Richard Avedon

In some ways, this was the “settling in” piece. The cavernous Royal Festival Hall was sold out for this popular performer, with a number of audience members being admitted after breaks in the programme. The audience was restless and eager for the concert to start, and it took the first Bach pieces for the excited anticipation to settle into concentrated attention.

The C major Prelude was a little too strident and upright, but the Fugue which followed it was a joyous stream of music, its playful counterpoint neatly highlighted by Uchida. The F sharp minor Prelude was a model of understated elegance, its aria-like melody executed with a refined cantabile which fully captured the attention and imagination of the audience.

After the mannered poise of Bach came Schoenberg, his Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, tiny piano works which express so much in their fleeting measures (nos. 2 and 3 are only nine bars long), and which demonstrate Schoenberg’s desire to find a new means of musical expression. As Uchida played, the vast space of the Royal Festival Hall seemed to shrink to the size of a Viennese salon, such is her stage presence, as she brought to these miniatures intimacy and introspection, delicacy and precision. The sixth piece was poignant and tender: in its distant bell sounds the composer wove a valediction to his friend and mentor, Gustav Mahler.

In a neat piece of programming Uchida then gave us Schumann’s Waldszenen (“Forest Scenes”), nine short pieces similar in style and spirit to his Kinderszenen, which shed light on the Schoenberg in their similarly shifting moods, eerie mystery, playfulness and delicate textures, all executed with Uchida’s graceful and sensitive touch and her imaginative highlighting of interior details: piquant dissonances and nervousness shot through with hymns and grandiose statements, particularly in the striking chorale-like main theme of no. 7, “The Prophet Bird”.

Schumann’s Piano Sonata no. 2, which opened the second half of the concert, was tempestuous, passionate and mercurial, and at times Uchida seemed to lose herself entirely in the music. Yet, in the charming Andantino, Uchida recalled the gorgeous cantabile of the Bach F sharp minor Prelude, its gently rolling 6/8 melody beautifully expressed.

The concert closed with Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe (“Songs of Dawn”), composed in 1853, just months before the composer’s catastrophic mental collapse, and his last coherent set of solo piano music. Like the Schoenberg of the first half, and the piano sonata which preceded it, this work is complex and unsettling, full of conflicting emotions and subtle psychological inflections. The opening movement, a simple chorale, was played with subtly and carefully nuanced pedaling.

After the impulsive and varied personalities of Schumann, what better encore than the slow movement of a Mozart piano sonata, offered with a smile and a winsome shake of the head, as if Uchida couldn’t quite decide what to play. It was so perfect, it spoke entirely for itself.