Royal Festival Hall, London

Schubert's last three piano sonatas may have been composed in a single astonishing creative burst in the final months of the composer's life in 1828, but they resolutely resist being regarded as a trilogy: each stands in its own musical and emotional space, independent masterpieces all. Playing the three in a single recital, almost two hours of music, becomes not only a huge physical challenge for the pianist, but a forbidding intellectual one, too, which risks leaving at least one of the works underexplored; last year both Maurizio Pollini and Steven Osborne took on the challenge in London, and neither quite brought it off.

But Mitsuko Uchida's outstanding recital proved the exception to the rule, and showed not only that the three works can be successfully programmed together, but what an extraordinary experience it then becomes. Uchida's great achievement was to place each of the three sonatas in the context of the other two in a way that would not be possible if she had been playing just one of them, yet without ever compromising the integrity of any of them.

The recital unfolded like a vast epic: intensely coloured, fiercely dramatic, generously expressive; every phrase mattered. Apart from the sheer beauty of the performances – the crystalline purity of Uchida's quiet playing was a wonder in itself – each of the sonatas was characterised in a way that fitted it perfectly into the overall scheme. The C minor D 958 was agitated, highly strung; the A major D959 imposingly muscular; the B flat D960 serene, regretful, nostalgic. The first-movement repeat was omitted in the C minor and the A major, but observed in the B flat. This allowed Uchida to transform both the return to the opening and then the magical chord into spellbinding moments, two among so many in this recital.

Rating: 5/5

Andrew Clements
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