Dame Mitsuko Uchida gave a reading of Schubert sonatas and fragments on Friday evening at Vienna's Musikverein that was at times so intimate it felt nearly voyeuristic to be in the audience. Uchida has dedicated this year to Schubert, and her relationship with the composer’s oeuvre spans decades. Likewise Uchida’s long-term relationship with the halls of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, where she has been a regular guest since debuting there in 1963. This level of familiarity with Schubert’s work has yielded her performances unique in their thorough understanding of its architecture and language. Uchida embodies a willingness to explore every crevice of nuance Schubert offers, and though there are certainly more spotlessly pristine renditions on the market, the soul of the composer seems very much alive in her touch, particularly in his most retrospective moments.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida © Decca | Justin Pumfrey
Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Decca | Justin Pumfrey

The opening sonata in A minor D.537 from 1817 is often referred to as the “Small A minor” to differentiate it from its later cousins. It charges in with a bang and many a flourish; the majestic opening motif bombastically appearing, reappearing and shifting, then inevitably dissolving into smoke and quiet darkness. Uchida brought out secondary voices, and pedaled liberally at times, particularly when exploring some of the composer’s unexpected dissonances and underlying his more dreamlike moments. In her words, “Schubert’s music is between life and death, he dreams with his eyes on the far horizon.” The second movement, in E major, is characterized by a simple right-hand melody in octaves that connoisseurs may recognize as recycled in Schubert’s later sonata in A major D.959. Uchida’s shimmering pearls of sound rendered the songlike melody haunting in its quiet simplicity. The virtuosic finale lost a bit of steam due to tiny lapses, but still colorfully and effectively wrapped up the work.

Two movements from the Liederfürst’s unfinished Sonata in C major D.840 followed. The first movement creeps in as quietly as the preceding sonata had just loudly exited. Richly contrasting themes compete with each other for notice throughout, weaving in and out, sometimes simply evaporating into nothingness or drifting into brand new harmonic landscapes. The first movement indicates a much more thickly textured conception of sound than anything in the A minor prior. Blocks of sound at both ends of the instrument rule for periods, and syncopation reigns supreme, although the first movement ends in an uncertain pianissimo. A tuneful, plaintive Andante follows in the parallel minor key. This movement is one of my favorites in all Schubert literature – the variety of different characters and ideas is astounding, and Uchida was in top form here, producing tiny, filigreed moments of exquisite beauty.

In September 1828, just two short months before his death, Schubert wrote three piano sonatas which he never saw published, as well as the set of fourteen songs dubbed Schwanengesang by its publisher. The last of the sonatas, in B flat major D.960, is a study in silence and intimacy, so veiled and muted throughout larger sections that thoughts and melodies seem no more than wispy shapes behind a curtain. Uchida refused to bow to the size of the grandiose Musikverein, taking Schubert’s pianissimos to their extreme and requiring every audience member to lean in and listen. The opening theme in the first movement was kept tightly under wraps dynamically, making its eventual dynamic bloom a revelation as well as a relief. The second, song-like movement in C sharp minor was the quietest rendition of the movement imaginable, its pleading melody whispering over a barely audible dotted motif in the left hand. The A major middle section sounded extremely warm and healthy in comparison, offering delightful contrast. A weightlessly spry Scherzo and accent-filled Trio followed, and though some repetitions and runs were a bit of a wash, the delicate charm of the movement was undeniably present and accounted for. The unusually structured finale throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix, including a clear wink at Haydn. It circles around and around, wandering through keys, stopping up short, and starting again until the Presto coda builds to a satisfying send-off. Uchida was treated to a standing ovation, an unusual gesture for the generally reserved populace of the Golden Hall.