Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert and Beethoven

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A postponed recital by the renowned pianist proved to be worth the wait, writes Rebecca Franks

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Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert and Beethoven
Mitsuko Uchida

It was a case of second time lucky for Mitsuko Uchida’s recent recital at St George’s Bristol, after an eleventh-hour hand injury forced her to postpone last November. The very idea of a pianist damaging their fingers or thumbs makes one wince, but there was no audible sign, at least, that it’s had lasting effects.

Two masterpieces of the piano repertoire made up the programme, the golden serenity of Schubert's Piano Sonata in G, D894 (1826) contrasting with Beethoven's demanding Diabelli Variations (1823). In Uchida's performance, it wasn't just the gargantuan Variations that seemed to be on a grand architectural scale, but the Schubert as well. The very first chord, pianissimo but full of promise and hope, blossomed as the gentle theme unfurled and repeated, growing in volume and stature.

As the first movement progressed, Uchida seemed to create an ever larger space for the listener to explore – the upward reaching motifs and scales becoming huge pillars in a cathedral of sound. At other more intimate moments – the hushed parts of the Andante, for instance – her wonderfully round, warm and spacious tone seemed to open up a heavenly realm. There were some effortful-sounding moments in the final Allegretto, but it finished in sunny serenity.

A gathering of energy from both audience and performer can often be needed before taking on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. At 50-or-so minutes, this mighty work is a compositional and pianistic tour de force based on a 'cobbler's patch' theme that had been sent out to a host of composers by the publisher Anton Diabelli. Uchida began with almost pushy purpose, and a smile, ensuring that catchy little theme wouldn’t be forgotten, however many games Beethoven played with it. And then we were straight into the 33 variations, lyrical, solemn, comic, transcendental. With plenty of grand gesture and subtle detail, Uchida made this a performance of compelling character. 50 minutes didn’t seem long enough.

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Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine.

Rebecca Franks