Dame Mitsuko Uchida is a renowned interpreter of Schubert, and offers two concerts this December in the Royal Festival Hall of his late piano sonatas. Despite the scale of the hall, and the titanic length – about ninety minutes of music – this was a performance that did not want for intimacy or psychological acuity. 

The Piano Sonata in E flat major D568 of 1826 took a little while to get going; Uchida didn’t really settle into the playfulness of her dynamic contrasts and quicksilver phrasing until the repeat of the exposition, but it soon turned into a characterful reading, full of charm and sunshine, despite a couple of scuffed notes. The Menuetto was all woozy capering, not far off Täuschung in the later Winterreise. But this was a Schubert who is emotionally hard to read.

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

The A minor sonata D784 is one of Schubert’s stormiest, and prone to biographical fussing, written after he was diagnosed with syphilis. The opening Allegro giusto has a dark symphonic grandeur, and it was easy to imagine, given Uchida’s mastery of the texture, possible orchestral timbres: tremolando strings, unison trombones, or pairs of woodwinds in imitation. It demands fiercer and more full-blooded Romantic commitment than Uchida afforded us, offering instead laconic understatement. But the dramatic moments were convincing enough, particularly in the churning development section. The second movement, an Andante molto in F, sung as freely as Uchida permitted it, keeping its lyricism on a tight rein, and the niggling gesture that accompanies the opening theme was disconcertingly wry. 

The final movement of the A minor sonata is often a dance of death, percussive and riotous. This was not Uchida's approach, who summoned quite a different mood, redolent of her cooler take on the tragedy of the opening Allegro. She was soft and skittish, imbuing the cascading triplets with a kind of nervous ripple, only occasionally letting go when it came to volume. Uchida has an absolutely surgical control of texture, using the sustain pedal to generate blooms of melody dissipating gently. Rather than being music of demonic force, it seemed to hover mysteriously, ominously, in the air above the piano. We got the same beguiling self-possession in the smoother, more chromatic second theme of the Rondo, which offers, in her hands, only limited repose from the flurried action of the opening.    

After the interval, the titanic A major sonata, D959, completed in the final months of Schubert’s life. The opening movement has all of Beethoven’s declamatory steadfastness, which Schubert defuses with melting downward triplets, and Uchida traversed the massive architecture of this huge Allegro with a meticulous sense of its structure; the beginning of the recapitulation, following a silent bar, was perfect Schubertian lyrical fragility. 

The F sharp minor Allegretto is the tortured emotional singularity of the work, and consequently its weighty lyricism causes some pianists to slow it to a crawl. Uchida kept it moving, with a keen sense of line and pointed expressive delicacy, never slackening her calculated restraint. There is great care taken to shape even the smallest musical units: the clusters of repeated notes in the right hand as the principal theme returned were exquisitely shaped, and alongside the wilder desperation of the movement’s interlude.  

When A major returns in Uchida's fleet-footed Scherzo everything is out of sorts, even if the quivering, aqueous surface summons does it's best to summon the joyfulness of his Trout. There was, again, softness and featherlight touch, which come to take on a strangely ghostly or dreamlike quality: Uchida is superb at channelling the understated melancholy disguised in Schubert's more apparently cheerful music. After the Andantino I couldn't help but find the scherzo desperately sad. It's as if Schubert is saying that even happier times can't be shorn of whatever darkness is in the past.

The final Allegretto’s careworn melodies gave us nostalgia but with a lightness that kept at bay any image of Schubert the jolly tunesmith; the music steeled itself in the individual episodes, and Uchida navigated the vast landscape of chromatic changes and shifts of mood with sure-footedness. As the piece comes to a close, its ability or will to sing much longer begins to break down, offering only great silences, as if the music gives up on itself; these are only blown away by a furious coda that Uchida played with defiance and vivacity. 

Uchida has a near-miraculous control of the silences that are such an important punctuation mark in Schubert's music. She is able to arrive at these moments with deathly, vanishing diminuendos which are like the chill of a sudden draught, such is the quality of her dynamic control. Or, alternatively, these great cavernous silences appear abruptly, following fiercely articulated chords, giving Schubert’s music a jumpy, disturbed quality. Uneasy music, and utterly riveting.