In an age of music as spectacle, when eye-popping classical seasons contain multimedia and world premieres, it’s nice to remember a spectacular concert can involve just a woman and a piano on an otherwise empty stage.

Mitsuko Uchida, 69, is one of those artists who approaches her instrument like a disciple or a high priestess, the heir to and interpreter of a long and hallowed tradition. The flashiest thing about her Washington Performing Arts concert at Strathmore on Wednesday night — this renowned artist’s first appearance with the organization in eight years — was the large gold lamé wrap tied around her waist in a large bow, matching her shoes. This glittery fabric seemed less frivolous than a kind of vestment, a nod to a sense of festive occasion — the only nod, really, beyond pure music, as she sat down and played three sonatas by Franz Schubert, part of her ongoing two-season focus on that composer.

Uchida isn’t a showy player; but neither was Schubert. Indeed, I felt I gained a profounder understanding of the composer the longer I listened to her, from the moment she lit into the C minor sonata (D. 938), written in the last year of his short life, with a brisk, taut touch, delineating the Beethoven-like opening without hyperbole. Her approach, lyrical yet firm, began to evoke the image of a disheveled, pudgy man with glasses sitting at a Viennese fortepiano, with its particular springy action, and sending cascades of light and shade like summer cloudscapes across the keys. 

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The A Major sonata (D. 664), probably from 1819, is a wealth of singing melody. Schubert’s melodic imagination was akin to the Italian opera composer Bellini, a few years his junior: He could spin out a tune over many measures of exquisite sweetness. But there’s always a hint of brooding darkness beneath that sun, clouds gathering in the left hand.

And though Schubert was a consummate melodist, it became clearer the longer Uchida played that melody isn’t really the point. It floats on the surface of the music like a ship, but the real force is what’s moving beneath it. The climax of the evening was the long G Major sonata (D. 894) from 1826, which brought to fruition the implications of the other two pieces: it shows Schubert expounding at length on his musical ideas, letting one yield to another, laying out blocks of sound and color and contrast, from light to sudden storms. The drama here is about something much bigger than through line and singing voice, as Uchida subtly emphasized with a taffy-like thickness of tone, a sense that there was always something anchoring and connecting the fingers to the keys — and a sense, certainly, that a few wrong notes were entirely beside the point.

Of all the canonical composers, it’s Schubert whose early death seems the most wasteful, the most to have deprived us of untold innovations, and the way Uchida played the final sonata gave intimations of a whole new way of thinking about sound — something that, after Schubert’s death, took many more years to realize. As if to confirm this, Uchida played a single, fleeting encore, the second of Schoenberg’s “Six Little Piano Pieces,” Op. 19, written nearly a century later: teasing out sounds from the piano like small, bright shells, each gleaming with the light of discovery. As she played it, it stood in a perfect line with Schubert — even in the sense that the playing had ended much too soon, while there was still appetite for more.

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