In the encore, a rather avian Scarlatti
K. 9 Sonata in D Minor
, she somehow turned a Steinway into a harpsichord. In Bach, which opened the Wednesday night recital, she gave the same modern grand keyboard the sustaining power of an organ.
Mitsuko Uchida has achieved Great Lady status, a verdict confirmed by the 100 or so eager devotees left on the waiting list for tickets to experience this transcendent night at the Perelman Theater.
As if by long-standing edict, the pianist - the last on this season's Philadelphia Chamber Music Society piano series - is referred to as "elegant." Such an adjective, though, is incomplete to the point of being ridiculous. What comes through in the playing are the kinds of strong opinions and sly manipulation of phrasings that combine to reveal truth.
Uchida has spoken about the strangeness of Schumann - in a podcast from London's Southbank Centre, she called two of the works on the program "weird, weird, weird, weird" - and she might as well have added a third: his Piano Sonata in G Minor, Opus 22 (known today as the No. 2). Where other pianists have sought virtuosity, Uchida heightened qualities in the writing that Rachmaninoff wouldn't get to for decades.
Insanity has its benefits, and in two more rarely played Schumann works, you had to completely accept the composer's oblique expressive gestures and obsessiveness with repeated patterns to get inside his alternative view of reality. Nature is never far from Schumann, and with Uchida as storyteller, the movements of Waldszenen ("Forest Scenes") unfolded as something out of Grimm: foreboding calm, a bellicose encounter, a meandering walk, magical wisps curling into peril, peril into the lithe fanfares of nobility, and, finally, a romance.
His Gesänge der Frühe ("Songs of Dawn") are stranger still, a quality the pianist embraced rather than trying to make coherent. Rhythmically, you could never notate what she did. Her inflections ignored written note values, uncovering the composer's essence.
If Uchida was looking to at least start the recital with conciseness, Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19 flashed with emotional clarity. But before them came the Bach, two prelude and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II (C Major, F Sharp Minor), and Bach is a hard act to follow. Sometimes fluid, sometimes halting, always spare, they were in Uchida's hands magnificent worlds of solitude that begged a quiet not to come for some time.