Mitsuko Uchida, Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture

When the 27-year-old Robert Schumann couldn’t find a publisher for his ‘Davidsbundlertanze’, he paid for the work’s publication himself, but even his betrothed Clara – for whom it was written – couldn’t see the point of it, and many people still don’t today

When he did find a publisher thirteen years later, he agreed to soften its edges and remove its original attribution to ‘Florestan and Eusebius’, the imaginary (but intensely real) characters who led his band of ‘Davidites’ waging war on the traditionalists, who in his view were strangling new music.

For Mitsuko Uchida, who has just released a Cd of it, this is the Schumann work she would choose to go the grave with, and when she launched into its opening dance you could sense her burning commitment. The work is cast in the form of a to-and-fro tussle between aggressively extravert Florestan and his contemplative alter ego Eusebius. Uchida’s characterisation of their alternating utterances was wonderfully nuanced and evocative, and she took more risks than on her Cd, letting the work dictate its own crazy momentum. The cheerfully hammering chords of the seventh dance following the arpeggiated grace of the sixth were one of many felicitous leaps between self-contained musical worlds.

If this performance was sensational, so was her delivery of Beethoven’s Sonata in E minor Opus 90, with which she opened her recital. There’s nothing showy in this late work, just plainness, economy, cool symmetry, but she invested it with dignity and grandeur. There was steel in her touch as she shaped the silky/strident contrasts of the first movement, and her tone in the second had tender warmth. After the final phrase had curled away into the ether, she gave one of her lightning-fast floor-kissing bows: clad in diaphanous greens, she seemed even less terrestrial than usual.

Devoting the second half of her programme to Chopin, she segued from a muted, floating account of the C sharp minor Prelude straight into his majestic Sonata No 3 in B minor, but Chopin just isn’t her composer at present. She brought huge energy to the task, but the virtuosity and panache which this work demands is of a different kind from hers. Her encore – the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ – was hushed and exquisite.

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