Exquisite Uchida plays to her strengths at Salzburg Festival

World renowned pianist Dame Mitsuko Uchida is rightly known for her intimate and delicate interpretations of Mozart and the much celebrated Japanese musician did not disappoint, opening the evening’s concert with Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545, a piece which is clearly close to her heart, such was the delicate craftsmanship emanating from her word at the keyboard. In the same city where the great composer himself was born in 1756, a full house bore witness to a magnificent performance. The work itself was written as a gentle introduction for young children to the sonata. Its deceptively simple nature belies the challenge of making it sound sufficiently light, yet Uchida is a past master and delivered a beautifully nuanced performance.

Following on, we heard Schumann’s enigmatic masterpiece Kreisleriana – something of an inspired choice, affording as it did a considered contrast with the preceding work. We suddenly found ourselves transferred from the light and refined soundworld of the classical era headlong into the turbulent and schizophrenic emotions of Schumann’s seminal 1838 work.

Written in a feverish outpouring of inspiration (staggeringly over a period of just four days) Schumann’s suite of eight movements is typically tempestuous one minute, tender the next. Each movement features such recurring contrasts, recalling Schumann’s own Florestan and Eusebius, the two fictional characters which Schumann used to symbolise his own contrasting impulsive and dreamy sides.

To open up the second half, we were treated to a somewhat modern take on Mozart’s sonata with an airing of the relatively recent composition Sonatina facile by clarinettist-composer Jörg Widmann. This energetic homage contains a series of rather quirky passages and never fails to entertain over the course of its 14-minutes. Uchida, who was arguably put on this planet in order to play Mozart, seemed to relish the challenge of interpreting this modernistic and radical update on the original sonata, Widmann’s music wrenching the 18th-century composition quite forcibly into the 21st. Uchida partnered Widmann on previous occasions when performing this work – it appeared that she was having fun with this particular one.

The fourth and final work of the evening saw a return to the somewhat safer ground of Robert Schumann’s Fantastie in C major. Composed in 1836 before being revised in 1839, Franz Liszt – to whom the work was dedicated – was cited as one of the few pianists capable of performing the work at the time, such were the unprecedented technical demands on the pianist.

Schumann prefaced the work with a quote from Friedrich Schlegel: “Durch alle Töne tönet/ Im bunten Erdentraum/ Ein leiser Ton gezogen/ Für den, der heimlich lauschet” (Resounding through all the notes/ In the earth’s colourful dream/ There sounds a faint long-drawn note/ For the one who listens in secret). Liszt later returned the favour when he dedicated his own Sonata in B minor to Schumann in 1853.

Uchida’s technique in playing this rhapsodic fantasy was exemplary and delivered with a delicacy of touch. She displayed masterly control through the constant whirlwind of emotions and despite occasionally over-generous pedalling, always ensured that the melodic lines sang through over intense, accented syncopation in the left hand.

This was a wonderful performance from a legend of the keyboard. It was a privilege to observe her at work.