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Jonathan Biss & Mitsuko Uchida debut 4-hand ‘Schubertiade’ at Richardson Auditorium

A man and woman sit together at a piano on a stage. The stage light is centered on the two while the rest of the stage is slightly darker.
Jothathan Biss and Mitskuo Uchida performing in Richardson Auditorium.
Chloe Lau / The Daily Princetonian

Mitsuko Uchida is one of the most prominent pianists of the 21st century, most well-known for her interpretations of Mozart and Schubert. Recently, she was a 2023 Grammy Nominee for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Biss was a guest lecturer at the New England Conservatory of Music and performed a Tiny Desk Concert on NPR in 2020. The two pianists serve as Artistic Directors at the Marlboro Music School and Festival.

Mitsuko Uchida and Jonathan Biss take on the four-hand repertoire for the third time in history, previously touring around Europe in 2023. Four-handed piano repertoire is rarely performed in concert, let alone by two well-known pianists. This time, they appeared on the Princeton University Concerts series to a mostly filled Richardson Auditorium on April 3, then went on to perform in Philadelphia on April 5, Schenectady on April 7, and concluded their American shows in New York’s Carnegie Hall on April 9.


While Uchida is more well-known than Biss in the piano sphere, she regards Biss and Schubert equally as “her favorite boys.” Both performers esteem Schubert highly, as Biss writes in the program that “It is his lyricism — sublime, simple, seemingly effortless — that first captures the ear and the heart.” For most of his life, Schubert had cyclothymia, which caused him to experience severe mood swings from hypomanic to depressive episodes. This is reflected in the emotional depth conveyed even in his seemingly “easier” repertoire, which still requires close attention to musicality and great control over phrasing. 

The two began the “Allegro in A Minor, D. 947, Lebensstürme (1828)” with a relatively reserved descent, highly charged with a feeling I could not immediately discern. The second repeat of the descent was much louder, with rhythmic and motivic unrest from the lower part, and I could hear Biss already heaving with the effort. Uchida’s dynamic control was sublime, especially for the pianissimo of the second theme, sustaining clear, haunting chords beneath Biss’ flowy, sentimental melody. His higher part emerged with so much rubato that it sometimes felt overdone, but for louder passages, it was unmatched in power compared to Uchida’s playing, which projected the richness of each note through the entire auditorium. Their call and response wove the piece together until the last two notes, accented by a dramatic pause beforehand. 

Next, Uchida and Biss brought out the somber funeral march “Grande Marche in E-flat Minor, D. 819, No. 5 (1824)”. Contrasting with the legato in the last piece, the beginning was detached and slower. This time, Biss’ ebb-and-flow style fit right into the darker dynamic tones of the melody. He brought out the dotted rhythm in the right hand, which Uchida echoed. While moving in between E-flat major and minor, the crescendos pulled back at the top of the phrase, suspended without the dynamic relief. Some crescendos and decrescendos also felt abrupt, but they mirrored Schubert’s volatile mood switches.

A quick mood switch occurred in “Rondo in A Major, D. 951 (1828)” with bright, yearning tone, executed through lighthearted ornaments and arpeggios by Biss, and appropriately filled to the brim with rubato. Very often, all four hands were in motion. The key changes were careful but moved quite naturally. Though simplistic in notes, Uchida and Biss’ passion was so vivid that I could not properly describe it on paper, which held up till their last iteration, a slow chord ending with a long trill that slowly faded into the distance. Their hands left the audience on the edge of their seats, as they stood still for 10 seconds before the thunderous applause. 

After the intermission, Uchida and Biss switched places for “Divertissement à l’hongroise, D. 818 (1824).” Biss remarked that this “might be the most remarkable work on this program.” It was immediately apparent that Mitsuko controlled the melody with less flair, opting for a more grounded style. With strong and powerful chords, she moved along with Biss more vigorously in this piece. Almost like a swing, slow, longing sections immediately transitioned to swift, inquisitive chords, then vice versa. The one moment of clarity that emerged out of these rapid switches was a soaring D major scale descent that disappeared as swiftly as it arrived.

Despite brief pauses, the three movements blended together. Each phrase indecisively flittered between major and minor key, which often resolved in the first note of the next phrase. The tonal ambiguity was both unsettling and beautiful. Uchida and Biss leaned into this tension, quickening with chromatic increases, then almost halting with singular chords that sounded unfinished before resuming a new section. Initially, the push and pull seemed overused, but the emotions grew stronger as the movements went on. The angst and exhaustion increasingly intertwined with the beauty and exuberance of the musicality, which left me unsettled and uncomfortable; there seemed to be no end or escape to this anguish. There was so much to process that I could not tell what was coming next. Each time I thought I understood what I was feeling, the piece pivoted to the other extreme. Uchida and Biss mastered embodying Schubert’s inner pain so that one could feel it just as strongly. The moment of clarity returned in the last few moments of an extended G cadence, suddenly focusing and awakening from the turmoil. Enraptured in the silence that rang after the last note, I was quite disappointed that some of the audience members could not appreciate the wait, and started clapping even though the two were still poised motionless over the piano. 


Finally, the duo ended with a two and a half minute encore piece, a low, lush E flat major piece that did not reach beyond a mezzo piano. The audience was anxious to start clapping, interrupting mere seconds after the piece ended. The smile that Uchida and Biss shared as they rose from the piano was one of contentment, as well as slight disappointment with the interruption. From their first note, Uchida and Biss complemented each other so well in tone, dynamics, and phrasing that it felt like a one-person performance. Perhaps in this modern age, people are too impatient to appreciate the nuances of Schubert, but I hope Uchida and Biss can change our minds about his complexities — four hands at a time.

Chloe Lau is a staff Prospect writer and a staff Features writer for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at chloelau[at]

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