‘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

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

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

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