Mitsuko Uchida celebrates her 70th birthday this month with Schubert. She’s halfway through a two-year exploration of the piano sonatas, and in the first of her two recitals at the Festival Hall this week, she juxtaposed two of the greatest and most dramatic: the A minor Sonata, D784, and A major Sonata, D959. Those were prefaced by the Sonata in E flat, D568. Recent research suggests it is not the early work its Deutsch number signals, but a product of the mid 1820s, when Schubert reworked an existing sonata (in the unlikely key of D flat) to produce the four-movement work that opened this concert.
Despite the revisions, the E flat Sonata is not one of the composer’s finest achievements. The slow movement has a lumpen central section, and the finale goes on just a bit too long. Uchida’s performance had its quota of striking moments, but never quite made it cohere convincingly. Since I last heard her play Schubert, her approach appears to have become less spontaneous and more studied. In the A minor Sonata, especially, (its first movement surely played more slowly than the allegro giusto marking suggests), there were mannered little pauses to emphasise rhetorical gestures that tended to break the music into self-contained paragraphs; what should be one of Schubert’s great tragic statements became curiously detached.
Her finest playing was reserved for the A major Sonata, though even then it wasn’t until the opening movement’s development section that things really came to life, with the kind of alert responses that one associates with Uchida at her best. After that, the performance was full of memorable, sometimes thrilling moments, even if it did not sweep everything before it as this sonata can.
• Second recital at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 7 December.