SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata No. 9, in B major, D.575. Piano Sonata No. 16, in A minor, D.845.
Mitsuko Uchida, pianist  
Philips  462 596  {F}  [DDD] TT: 63:55

Uchida polarizes listeners, and not just piano mavens. While some of us consider her the most refined, fastidious and subtly expressive keyboard artist alive today, others find her precious, lacking in passion, and a miniaturist. Neither side has succeeded in persuading the other to cross over. For me, her complete Mozart concertos surpass those even of elegant yet full-blooded  Geza Anda, who hobbled himself  with a student orchestra from the Mozart Academy at Salzburg (pace fans of Alfred Brendel, who hobbled himself with Neville Marriner on the podium).

Lately Uchida has taken up the sonatas of Schubert. This is the fourth disc to date (the first featured both sets of Impromptus, Opp. 90 and 142) but the first one  I’ve heard. Now I want the other three, instanter, and however many will follow. Her musicianship is just as seductive in Schubert as in Mozart, although here the tone is befittingly fuller, a measure more assertive as befits music created for Beethoven’s Hammer-Klavier.

The A-minor beamed me back to adolescence, and the breathtaking discovery of it on three English Parlophone 78s, recorded by Lili Kraus before her lamentable internment in a Japanese prison camp during World War 2 (from which she never completely recovered her expressive or technical poise). Straightaway I bought the Schirmer printed edition of the “complete” Schubert sonatas (complete in 1944), and proceeded to dismember the music according to surviving sisters with long memories, although my ears were hearing what was on the page, assisted by a keyboard non-technic that had driven half-a-dozen maiden teachers in middle-age to despair. Not even the Beethoven sonatas (until Opp. 109-111) gave such pleasure.

I’d quite forgotten that thrill of discovery until Uchida’s new CD, recorded during August 1998 in Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal. Erik Smith, son of the conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and producer of her Mozart sämtlich, is once more the great lady’s colleague for sublimely nuanced musicmaking. If the A-minor Sonata is altogether a greater work than its companion, the B-major has youthful surprises that serve notice of a genius-in-the-bud. But there is room on the disc for more, unless the uncompleted works, single movements in numerous cases, will not be included.

Philips offers excellent annotations in a white, black and grey program book, colors that make it a chore to read data set in small type (i.e. total timings and the disc number). Uchida’s performances of such fresh, springtime music would seem to call for springtime colors, not funereal ones that make her front-cover head-shot look like a kabuki mask. This is shoot-yourself-in-the-foot packaging. Who makes such decisions at Philips—and why hasn’t he, she or they been dropped into a canal at Amsterdam in cement shoes?

R.D. (Oct. 2000)