Mitsuko Uchida balances complexities in evocative Franz Schubert performances

Photo of Cal Performances
Justin Pumfrey/Courtesy

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In the age of TikTok and YouTube, short-form media has turned subtlety into a scarcity. And few do subtlety as well as world-renowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida.

Livestreamed March 18, against the backdrop of Wigmore Hall’s intimate wood interior, Uchida’s all-Schubert performance was heartfelt, personal and quietly refreshing. Dispelling classical music’s unjust reputation for being “boring,” Uchida reconciled both soft and quiet grace with exciting vigor in her entry to the “Cal Performances at Home” series.

Uchida opened with Impromptu in A-flat Major, D. 935, No. 2, a piece characterized primarily by dualities and contrasts between two dominant themes. The first, elegant and tranquil, was soon followed by a triumphant but no less graceful theme. Throughout the piece, Uchida effortlessly slipped between the two contrasting characters.

Then, a melancholic tension tainted the serenity of the melody, soon after which another theme emerged: Uchida’s undulating triplets evoked fish gliding beneath the glimmering veneer of a river.

Always one for subtlety, Uchida’s careful transition into the minor key was gradual. Culminating slowly in a cathartic release, she allowed the tension to simmer down to a riverlike calm again. Her return to the first theme was characterized by more tenderness and hesitation and less of the earlier, rather youthful carelessness.

Uchida’s rendition of Schubert’s Impromptu in C Minor, No. 1 began with an impishly dark march. An uneasiness engendered the underlying tension that continued to haunt the remainder of the piece, lingering like a pulse.

Subsequently, Uchida took temporary refuge in a cinematic, exquisite and heavenly theme. But shortly thereafter, she descended into an even more sonorous and powerful darkness. Uchida adopted a much more agitated pulse that only quieted when she slid into a sprightlier variation of the main theme.

The minor, agitated pulse was soon infused with the major key, and Uchida ended the piece ambiguously. The major key hesitantly triumphed — but it didn’t feel like much of a victory.

Uchida’s three last notes lingered with a sense of subdued reluctance and acquiescence — one that comes with age, as if she had taken the audience on the journey of witnessing someone’s life and death.

Uchida’s final piece of the night, Schubert’s Sonata in G Major, began serenely with an almost waltzlike sway. Even at its stormier parts, the darkness was much less imposing and more subdued, while its other, more ebullient parts were played with a crystalline delicacy. With this piece, Uchida added a spark of exuberance, venturing into a zestful and playful theme — a first for the night.

In Uchida’s introduction, Jeremy Geffen, Cal Performances executive and artistic director, said, “One of my pet peeves is the generalization that classical music is beautiful. Playing music for beauty alone smooths out the rough edges that composers use to document some of the most difficult challenges of the human experience.” Uchida certainly captured beauty and grace as well as the rough edges — her expressive capacity for contrasts, contradictions and complexities triumphed in this stunning performance.

In a conversation with Geffen, Uchida said, “If you have something to say, truly, then the world will come to you.” The world, it seems, has come to Uchida a thousand times over.

This performance was streamed by Cal Performances on March 19 and will be available on demand through June 16.

Contact Gracie Chung at [email protected].