REVIEW: Mitsuko Uchida Unleashes a Beastly Side of Schubert
Above: Mitsuko Uchida at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Fadi Kheir.
June 19, 2019
By Brian Taylor
Mitsuko Uchida is a pianist celebrated for ultra-refined Mozart, and peerless in music of more complicated harmony and texture like Schumann and Schoenberg. She’s naturally made a career of meticulous readings of Schubert, a composer who falls somewhere in the middle.
Schubert was a pupil of Salieri and at first glance, his piano sonatas appear to be made of Classical-era stuff. Uchida has arrived at what feels like an evolved take on Schubert’s most personal creations. The musical building blocks — scales, arpeggios, simple melody and accompaniment — as seamless and gliding as ever. But tonight, Schubert was a young man about to have life cut tragically short. A primal confrontation with fate shone through as Uchida tapped into the composer’s darker, beastly emotions.
It’s exciting to hear an established artist revisit repertoire and find in it something palpably new. Uchida has recorded Schubert’s piano ouvre before — notably in a complete set of sonatas for Philips more than a decade ago. But last Tuesday night, in a postponed finale to a cycle of Schubert sonatas at Carnegie Hall, she played with an emotional vitality eclipsing anything on those oh-so-elegant recorded versions.
Uchida knows the room well, and greets the brimming audience with an all-business nod, taking her place at the Steinway with a ceremonial adjustment of her eyeglasses. The opening Sonata in E-flat Major, D. 568, hailing from a simpler time in the composer’s life but revised later, is filled with yearning. Its lilting dances take inward turns. Uchida plays the first bars spaciously, allowing Schubert’s ideas to emerge organically. The slow movement could be a lovestruck aria from a Mozart opera — until it blossoms into a Romantic essay with full-blown symphonic writing for the piano.
The Menuetto that follows is full of unexpected asides and non-sequiturs. Uchida delights in communicating to the audience, finding balance in the Trio’s puzzling five-bar phrases. The finale is both driving and wistful, and climaxes with a remarkable chord (I wonder if this is the first discovery of the major-minor seventh chord, via an outré appoggiatura), which Uchida dwells on for a moment, letting it reverberate to the back of the hall before moving on.
The Sonata in A minor, D. 784, finds Schubert in the early stages of fatal illness. Schubert stares into the darkness and rages at the night. The first movement is reminiscent of a funeral march, with fiery outbursts of despair. The Andante is Schubert at his most theatrical — Uchida taps into the drama, only slightly over-polishing the edges. She whips the whirling Allegro vivace into a frenzy.
The evening’s main course was the behemoth Sonata in A Major, D. 959, which Schubert completed shortly before his death. Uchida approaches it like a conductor would a Mahler symphony, with a sense of architecture. The edifice that is the first movement is built slowly, one ornate tower at a time, in demanding passages that unfurl in long arcs, requiring enduring strength from the pianist. In lesser hands, the folksy second theme might come off as childish, but Uchida channels Mahler here again — finding nobility in simplicity. She commits to the movement’s arrival points with heft.
The second movement, a ghostly waltz, was deeply felt, bringing context to Schubert’s outbursts of desperation. The rollicking Scherzo found Uchida uncharacteristically relaxed, and an air of relief infused the lyrical Rondo. Indeed, the pianist seemed relieved to be finished with this commitment to Schubert (no encore was offered) undoubtedly because with this cycle she did not merely rest on her laurels, but journeyed ever deeper into this composer’s deceptively challenging work.