Andras Schiff, Wigmore Hall (****)/ Mitsuko Uchida, Royal Festival Hall (*****)


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The Independent Culture

Those who don’t like Andras Schiff’s Beethoven say he plays like a tyrant: for those who do, his way with the great sonata-cycle has something approaching the authority of an oracle. But even oracles can get things wrong, and so did Schiff’s account of the Rondo of Opus 31 No 1: Beethoven may have written in some quirkiness, but not to the mannered degree we got it here. Sometimes Schiff gets carried away by his own doctrinaire convictions.

Now half-way through the cycle, he’s dealing with works from that fascinating transitional period when Beethoven was having fun breaking out of the 18 century mould, and here the results are proving revelatory. In Schiff’s hands the first movement of the ‘Tempest’ sonata became a journey into an underworld whose contours were blurred and threatening; the meditative Adagio and the melancholy-lyrical Allegretto followed like the second and third acts of a tragedy. Schiff’s way with the jokes and parodies of the other Opus 31 sonatas was pure comedy; the orchestral textures of the ‘Waldstein’ were deployed to give the impression of rising out of darkness into sunlight, with the final Prestissimo coming as an explosion of airy brilliance.

Mitsuko Uchida’s artistry is rarer and more exotic, but she opened her long-awaited Southbank recital with two preludes and fugues from the second book of Bach’s 48 which spoke with a Teutonic directness: the pair in C major were dry and muscular, while those in F sharp minor had an arioso expressiveness.

Then she got down to business, setting Schoenberg’s ‘Six Little Piano Pieces, Opus 19’ back-to-back with Schumann’s ‘Waldszenen’ so that they shed light on each other in a remarkable way: what unified them was the infinite refinement of her touch, and the freshness with which she imagined each piece; ‘Vogel als Prophet’ (Prophet Bird) was exquisite beyond words. Her second half consisted of Schumann’s wildly virtuosic ‘Sonata No 2 in G minor’ – during much of which she seemed almost airborne - and his valedictory ‘Gesange der Fruhe’, to which she brought a bleak, wounded nobility. Her encore, one of Mozart’s simplest and loveliest slow movements, set the seal on a flawless evening.

Those fearing for classical music’s commercial health should note that both these recitals could have sold out twice over, so numerous, devoted, and youthful are the fans.