Mitsuko Uchida is on the last leg of her two-year journey exploring Schubert’s Piano Sonatas. This recital was to have been the culminating event at Carnegie Hall, but it became the penultimate, when due to exhaustion the pianist withdrew from all upcoming performances and the concert scheduled April 30 was postponed until June 18. We, after waiting for fifteen minutes past the start-time, were visibly relieved when Uchida finally entered.
The cheerful three-movement Sonata in A-minor was written in 1817 during a brief but blissful bid for independence when the twenty-year-old composer moved out of his parents’ suburban home and went to live with the family of his friend Franz von Schober in central Vienna. There he took advantage of the Schobers’ six-octave piano to produce a sizeable outpouring of works, including several incomplete Sonatas, along with others cast in three movements instead of four. Thus D537 omits the usual Scherzo or Minuet and places a lyrical interlude between two high-spirited Allegros.
Uchida quickly dispatched the opening martial theme of the first movement, but the energy soon dissolved in the more subdued passages as the music alternated between vigorous and relaxed modes. In some of the slower passages there were traces of artifice – mannered gestures and a few unwarranted pauses – that deprived the music of natural flow. Following a slight outbreak of applause at the movement’s peaceful conclusion (for the rest of the evening there were no further disturbances between movements), Uchida launched into the central Allegretto, turning the subtle key modulations into an engaging harmonic excursion. The Finale was mostly fiery before settling down to a gentle ending.
Next came two movements of the more grandly scaled but fragmentary D840. Dubbed ‘Reliquie’ (Relic) at its 1861 publication in Leipzig, the piece is highly venturesome in both form and language. Uchida gave its two contrasting movements an eloquent reading marked by moments of great tonal beauty. In the ambitious Moderato the dynamic range of her playing was especially striking, as was the intense concentration she brought to the softer passages. In the tuneful but unconventional Andante, with its wayward harmonies and somewhat disjointed structure, she displayed a remarkably wide range of expression.
But Uchida’s finest achievement of the evening came in the B-flat Sonata with playing that exhibited an almost otherworldly quality. This was especially true in the opening Molto moderato, where the performance sprang to life at the start of the far-ranging development section and displayed an extraordinary variety and depth of emotion. After that came an intensely wrenching Andante sostenuto, a contrastingly radiant and sparkling Scherzo, and an appropriately restless and energetic Finale.