‘London was where things seemed to be happening. It was open in attitude. Now England is closing in’
Pianist Mitsuko Uchida turns 70 this month – yet still spends sleepless nights worrying about wrong notes. Fiona Maddocks meets her
Time is of the essence for pianist Mitsuko Uchida, one of the world’s most revered and loved musicians. And not just metronome markings. This Japanese-born, Austrianraised Londoner blocks her day around long periods of practice in her west London studio. Arriving early, I listen outside to a fabulous cascade of virtuosic pianism. This autumn she is playing a series of six Schubert sonatas, with two concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in December, the month she turns 70. On the dot, feeling like an intruder, I ring the bell. The music speeds up, rushes to the final chords and seconds later Uchida opens the door. (Later I see my watch was fast. She was bang on time.)
“I only have two pianos right now,” Uchida says, ushering me into the building where she works, wooden-floored and draped with sound-baffling hangings. “Two are away on tour. I don’t buy jewels or furs or antiques. Just pianos!” She has another, a baby grand, in her mews house opposite, where we retreat to talk.
Crossing the tiny courtyard and making tea, she pronounces on Trump and Brexit (no fan of either), getting older (philosophical), sexism in music (she recognises it but hasn’t experienced it), ageism (ditto) and dark Belgian chocolate (a dedicated consumer).
Away from the piano, her manner is warm, prone to explosive laughter, her voice quiet and intense when debating an aspect of music. Has her attitude to work changed over the years? “How I’ve changed in myself is difficult to say. One thing is clear: I have always stayed a student. I’ve just got older. I’m basically someone who studies and who tries hard every day.”
There’s no chance to take issue with this modest self-assessment. “There’s another constant – my devotion to German music. The second Viennese school, but also Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. Those are the four saints. I hope in the next few years to expand my repertoire again. Back will come Chopin – as nonGerman as can be. And I’d love to play Janáček.”
But this will come after some time out, scheduled for 2021. “I want to have a bit of time to myself, so I can look out of the window, so that I can study stuff without having sleepless nights thinking about whether I got it right or wrong. I had wanted to have a sabbatical. But it’s the wrong time as 2020 is Beethoven year [the 250th anniversary of his birth] and I will play his Diabelli Variations for the first time in various places such as Carnegie Hall and at a late-night Prom.” In this same “year off ” she is also continuing with a five-year Mozart concerto series, playing and directing, with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. “I can’t skip that …”
Uchida, born in the seaside town of Atami in 1948, left Japan when she was 12, for Austria, where her father was Japan’s ambassador. “I’m a European. That’s how I think of myself. Until I play in Tokyo and then I feel Japanese.” She started playing the piano aged three and gave her first recital at 14. When her family returned to Japan, she stayed on to study, winning the Vienna Beethoven prize and, in 1975, second prize in the Leeds Piano Competition.
By then she had settled in London. “It was where things seemed to be happening.” she says. “It was open in attitude. Now England is closing in.”
During the 1980s and 1990s she recorded the Mozart piano concertos, conducted by the late Jeffrey Tate, and made a TV series with him. Not only was she glamorous in her various Issey Miyake tops, she was a female virtuoso who could talk, scintillatingly, about music: quite a novelty at the time. Mozart’s concertos have remained a mainstay.
“I remember being in the Berlin Konzerthaus with [conductor] Kurt Sanderling, in the wings about to go on. I said to him, how could anyone write something as beautiful as the opening to K488? He replied, ‘God was moving the pen for him!’” Does she agree? Gales of laughter.
“No, of course not! Mozart’s world is in the world of humans. The music came straight from his brains! The speed with which he worked is so different from that absolute labour of Beethoven, who you feel must have spent months, thinking and plotting. In Mozart it seems as if there was no premeditation.”
Uchida has always dug deep into her chosen repertoire, preferring not to mix different sound worlds at any one time. The purity of her approach extends to the limpid precision of her playing. “Now it’s Schubert. An unimaginable genius, living a life of such abject loneliness.”
She prefers to limit the number of concerts she plays in a year to a maximum of 55. “I remember Elena, Daniel Barenboim’s wife, saying that for him a day without a concert is punishment. For me, a day without a concert means I can breathe freely.”
Can she enjoy them? “Absolutely. The moment of truth is when you walk on to the platform. All the rest is pretending. That’s why you have to perform. You work differently. You learn different things. You have to risk your life on stage. But the more you know, the harder it is to perform. I used to think it would grow easier as I got older and wiser, but I can swear it hasn’t. Maybe because I’m not wiser…”
Uchida’s slight frame rocks with laughter. “One thing hasn’t changed. Every day that I am allowed to play Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert … and the music of our own time too, is a gift. If heaven existed, it’s heaven.”
Mitsuko Uchida is at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 7 December.
Purity of approach … Mitsuko Uchida