Schubert: Piano Sonata in A minor, D845; Piano Sonata in B, D575

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Piano Sonata in A minor, D845; Piano Sonata in B, D575
PERFORMER: Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 462 596-2
Like another great Schubertian, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mitsuko Uchida constantly challenges received ideas, peering beneath the music’s serene or convivial surface to uncover its dark psychopathology. The underrated B major Sonata of 1817 emerges here as scarcely less powerful than the well-known A minor of 1825. Her tempi, à la Richter, are unusually spacious, her range of colour vast, from the most limpid pp cantabile to an orchestral weight and fullness of sonority. The first movement’s aspirations to military swagger are constantly undercut by introspective musing, and by some of Schubert’s most startling harmonic shifts. Uchida may draw out the dotted rhythms at the opening, but few other pianists have rendered the movement’s contrasts so stark, the remote modulations so strange and disturbing. The Andante steals in as a beatific vision, brutally shattered by the fortissimo E minor eruption; and the apparently genial Ländler scherzo is here transmuted into a remote, incorporeal dream.

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Not everyone will like Uchida’s constant dwelling on the upper note of each phrase of the A minor Sonata’s opening theme, or her hesitations in the turbulent coda – a hint of self-awareness here, as occasionally elsewhere in these performances. But this is another searching, disquieting reading, the towering first movement boldly orchestrated, with a haunting, spectral ppp in the development, the polyphonic textures of the Andante exquisitely sifted and illuminated. Typically, Uchida heightens the contrast between the Scherzo – here even more agitated than usual – and the unearthly calm and weightlessness of the Trio; similarly, her highly strung restlessness in the moto perpetuo finale throws the A major episode, magically floated by Uchida, into poignant relief. Among rival pianists, Brendel (in the A minor), Schiff and the more austere Richter each offer unique insights into these sonatas. But Uchida’s performances, darker, more soulful, if a shade more self-conscious, than any, take their place alongside them. The recording faithfully captures her subtle tonal palette, though the acoustic of the Vienna Musikverein is more reverberant than I find ideal. Richard Wigmore