~ Posted by Simon Willis, April 24th 2012
In our current Big Question we are asking which is the best musical instrument. The composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley argues that the piano is the best because of "its quite staggering compass“ and its "ability to move instantly from the highly percussive to the warmly lyrical”. For two and a half hours last night at the Royal Festival Hall, the pianist Mitsuko Uchida played Schubert's last three piano sonatas, and I was with Michael Berkeley all the way.
To play Schubert's late sonatas in one stretch is a huge task, for their length—the first half of the concert lasted almost an hour and a half—and for their extremes of mood. He composed all three between May and September, 1828, the final year of his life. He died of typhoid in November, aged 31. Whether or not he knew he would die when he was writing them (in the programme notes, Uchida says she thinks he did) the music explores a vast spectrum of feeling, from playfulness to despair and derangement.
At the beginning of the slow movement of the A-major sonata, the music is resigned and introspective, the sound of giving up. But then it becomes utterly unhinged, with ugly, discordant snatches of noise. Uchida describes it as music's “greatest mad scene”; Alfred Brendel wrote, in his essay on the late sonatas, that it was "among the most daring and terrifying pages in all music”.
The slow movement of the B-flat sonata, the longest of the three, opens as a study in isolation, but then turns on a dime to become surging, emphatic and optimistic. But when that lonely opening theme returns, the optimism sounds hollow in retrospect. Uchida’s playing, which was feathery and delicate one minute, wailing and gnashing the next, didn’t just work on the ear, but on the skin too, making at least one of the 2,500 members of the audience shiver and wince.
In his introduction to our Big Question, Richard Morrison quoted the poet Louis MacNeice, who wrote that the world is “incorrigibly plural”. That’s a good way of describing the pieces Uchida played, where each emotion colours another, the piano alive to every complexity. Morrison also wrote that choosing your favourite instrument will depend on who’s playing and how inspired they are. At 10.15 last night, Uchida got a five-minute standing ovation. Point proved. She’d inspired a couple of thousand.
Mitsuko Uchida's recordings of Schubert's sonatas are available from Decca. You can also listen on Spotify
Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life
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