Mitsuko Uchida review – quiet elegance and finely etched details

Royal Festival Hall, London
The pianist eschewed grandstanding and foregrounded Schumann’s intimacies and introspection in a programme that also included Liszt, Mozart and Kurtág

Kreisleriana and the C major Fantasy, arguably Schumann’s two supreme works for piano, formed the major part of Mitsuko Uchida’s latest London recital. They have been part of Uchida’s repertory for some while, and she has made fine recordings of both, but pairing them in concert was something of a statement.

What her Schumann playing emphasises consistently is the introspective side of the composer, and for that reason her account of Kreisleriana was more convincing than the Fantasy. It’s no accident that Schumann dedicated the former work to Chopin and the latter to Liszt: the eight movements that make up Kreisleriana cohere into a wonderfully subtle formal scheme that manages, like so much of Chopin’s finest music, to be discursive and satisfying at the same time. The Fantasy, meanwhile, contains its more public rhetoric within a remodelled version of classical sonata form, just as Liszt would do much more radically 15 years later in his own Sonata in B minor.

Uchida’s playing naturally inclines more to intimacies than to grandstanding. There were some lovely things in Kreisleriana, especially in the way she dealt with the surging intermezzos that interrupt the reflective second number – her bold contrasts as the sixth movement turns from lullaby to angry declamation – and the quietly eloquent way she managed the final piece as it ebbs away. There were just a few moments when the textures became cloudy, and one wished she had used the sustain pedal less generously. It may not have been the whole story of one of the most endlessly fascinating works in 19th-century piano music, but it was a pretty complete one, with every detail finely etched.

The Fantasy, though, never projected the same sense of authority. Formally, it was as lucid as anyone could want; Uchida’s tempi tended to be on the broad side, and the lingering, regretful coda to the first movement especially was managed exquisitely just as the finale was built to the impassioned climax it demands. But it all seemed a little distant, never as involving as it might have been, and the fearsomely tricky central march was a tense affair rather than the triumphant statement it ought to be.

A Kurtág encore, Play With Infinity, from his continuing collection of miniatures, Játékok, followed the Fantasy, while Uchida had begun the evening with Mozart’s C major Sonata K545. She played it with the perfect poise and directness she always brings to Mozart, while underlining the key shifts in its slow movement in a way suggesting that not everything in this sonata is as guileless as it often seems.

  • With Jörg Widmann at Wigmore Hall, London, on 9 February. Box office: 020-7935 2141.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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