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Mitsuko Uchida, Royal Festival Hall


Schubert’s last three sonatas, like Beethoven’s final three, make a massive valedictory statement, but in a very different way.

While Beethoven’s reflect the arc of his creation, Schubert’s coalesce into a sustained single utterance. Mitsuko Uchida has long played these, but as her remarks in the programme made clear, here she wanted to put us on her wavelength. Through them we would ‘experience the process of Schubert ceding to death, the spirit fading away’; there would be ‘nothing glorious about this farewell’.

Sweeping onstage in her trademark floating silks, and making her customary athletic bow, she launched into the first of these sombre masterpieces with a ferociously martial tone, spinning out the passage-work at a whirling pace. Unlike the Schubert of Maurizio Pollini or Paul Lewis – both in their way outstanding - this was Schubert with wings; Uchida seemed to hover over the keyboard, keeping the music’s wayward impulses under hair-trigger control. The sleepwalking Adagio and the breath-catchings and sudden silences of the Menuetto came across as a private communion – in Uchida’s phrase, ‘full of the horror and pain of death’ – before the eruption of the galloping Allegro ‘like the Erlkonig, with the hounds of hell yapping at the horse’s head’.

The Andantino of the A major sonata, which followed, took her deeper. She gave the barcarolle a bare, un-pedalled bleakness, before the piece suddenly disintegrated into raucous discordant ugliness, justifying her claim that this was music’s greatest mad scene - ‘the madness of a young man tearing his hair out, because he knows he’s going to leave this world at any minute’.

The way she played the last sonata was haunting and beautiful beyond words. In this work, she observed, ‘you’re already on the other side’, and that was exactly how the opening theme, with the whisper of distant thunder in the bass, came to us. The slow movement took place in a trance, its brief moments of animation sounding like remembered reflections of life. The finale will always be an enigma, with its stark octave signposts and its alternating busy flurries and blasts of doom, but in Uchida’s hands it made wonderful sense. No encore, but an interesting promise in the programme notes: she’ll write down what she thinks that finale means – but only when she’s dying.