By Charles T. Downey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 23, 2010; C02
On Wednesday night, devotees of Mitsuko Uchida filled the Music Center at Strathmore. The technical mastery of the Japanese-born pianist, now in her 60s, does not necessarily inspire awe in the listener, although there is plenty of daring virtuosity left in her agile fingers. No, what people came to hear was her way of turning a phrase. She gave carefully measured weight to each note, evoking again and again sounds as delightful and delicate as a wildflower, small daubs of bright color on tiny petals, like minute lines carved with painstaking care into glass.
Uchida performed pieces by two of her favorite composers, Mozart and Schumann, and one had the sense that in the late phase of her career she is becoming even more of a specialist. Indeed, her last recital here, in 2005 (also presented by Washington Performing Arts Society) was an all-Mozart program, and her latest recording, released on the Decca label, was made during live performances of a complete series of the Mozart piano concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra.
As she showed in the A Minor Sonata, K. 310, her Mozart uses the full power of the modern piano; it was refined but not afraid to indulge in dramatic contrasts. The first movement's main theme had an anxious, pointed quality, the left hand allowed to be obtrusive and heavy, while the second theme was serene and withdrawn, the whirring 16th notes smoothed by an ultra-legato touch. As in most of the evening, Uchida excelled in the slow movement, taking utmost care with the shape and articulation of every line.
Of the two Schumann selections, the 18 miniatures of the "Davidsb?ndlert?nze" played best to Uchida's strength in crafting character pieces. Wisps of melody curled from her fingers as harmony was diverted into unexpected areas by little rumbling chromatic motifs, often trailing off into silence moments after being launched. She was clearly in touch with the composer's dreamy side, personified by Schumann in the character of Eusebius, making the high point of Schumann's Fantasy in C, Op. 17, the tender, nostalgic opening of the third movement.
The more demanding fast passages in both works, associated by Schumann with Florestan (his assertive, domineering alter ego), were the least effective, approaching sloppy at times, as in the conclusion of the fantasy. Returning to her strengths, Uchida offered the sarabande from Bach's French Suite in G as an encore, its simple outlines traced with hushed reverence, nothing more than a vaporous shimmer.
Downey is a freelance writer.