Mitsuko Uchida: 'My four pianos are like human beings – all men'

The pianist on her beloved Steinways, the sea, sudoku and her long-awaited return to the Proms

Will it feel the same being back at the Proms after an absence of almost 20 years?
Twenty? I thought it was about five! I'm a different person now. The main reason I haven't been is that every year I'm away in Vermont as director of Marlboro Music, a chamber music camp for music students young and old – including myself. I'll never stop being a student.

Do you get anxious?
Always. When you are waiting to go on you wonder how you can do it. Then, as you step out, some psychological trick occurs. You think about the music, how wonderful it is, how lucky you are to be performing it…

The Albert Hall isn't the easiest place to play, especially with the Prommers standing right by your elbow.
It's not half as bad as Vienna's famous Musikverein. No audience is closer. The only reason the piano doesn't fall off the platform there is because a narrow rim of wood holds it on stage. When you play at the top end of the keyboard you find yourself looking at the woman in the red dress jangling jewellery in the front row. Ninety-five per cent of the time there is always a woman in a red dress jangling jewellery in the front row. I've tried keeping one eye shut so I don't see it but that's quite awkward. That colour is very disturbing for a performer. It's what matadors wave to attract a bull.

Not to mention the heat?
There's not much you can do about that. I'll tell you a secret. Basically I wear a uniform: wide pants, a teensy little chemise and an enormous, semi-translucent top. If it's really hot I can take that off. But the tops…

Your Issey Miyakes?
No, these are hand-pleated Venetian silk… If they get the slightest bit of damp on them – ie, sweat – all the pleats flatten out. They can't be ironed into place ever again. That's it. In the bin… But worst of all is my hair. I get very hot at the back of my neck.

Could you cut your hair and wear a tracksuit?
I'm seriously thinking about it. Rule number 1 is not to distract the public. It has to be safe. No one must think: will her strap fall down, is her underwear showing?

The piano must get sticky too?
Not so much sticky as slippery, especially as we use plastic keys now, not ivory.

How would you entice a newcomer to listen to Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto?
When you ask a pianist which of the five Beethoven concertos they prefer, they invariably say the Fourth. Apart from the originality, it has a spirituality that is difficult to describe. I remember [the conductor] Kurt Sanderling saying the slow movement sounds as if God has sent a curse down on the earth in the orchestra, with the piano solo replying like a prayer for help – that is how beautiful it is.

Why play it again and again?
So I can play it better. Maybe this time I will get close to the centre of it. Even as a kid, when my analytical ability was nil, I'd wait for those special moments. They shock you. That's when you gasp.

You have a reputation for self-discipline. Do you ever wind down?
I love doing nothing and looking out at sea. It doesn't matter what sea. I like to swim in salt water.

But you'd rather be playing the piano?
Absolutely. When I'm at home I spend all day around my pianos. My fingers never tire. It's my back, shoulders and brain that need a rest.

You live in a Notting Hill mews house with your piano studio opposite – in the centre of bustle yet separate from it…
Yes, all I have to do is cross the street. Currently I have four pianos, all Steinways – one I call "the Oldie", who was born in 1962 and I bought in 1982. He is now full of new bits but the body is the same.

You're sounding quite tender about these pianos…
They're like human beings – all men. Number 2 is good for practising on. The third I call the Boy from Munich – the kind that would drive a sports car. The fourth is the youngster, just getting nappy trained. I'll probably find somewhere in Europe to house him so I don't always have to transport a piano – which is quite a business.

Is your studio your sanctuary?
Yes. It's a quiet place. Almost no one comes in, and never with bad food or drink. It's just pianos and music. Film crews always want to enter. I say no. They often abandon their plans when they hear that.

Any unimaginable private pastimes we should know about?
I'm a Tour de France addict. I buy the Guardian and the Observer because your Mr [William] Fotheringham is the best reporter in English. Otherwise I follow it in l'Équipe. And sudoku. I'm a freak. It keeps your mind alert but with zero emotion. A novel would be too big a distraction but poetry is fine.

You were born in Japan, grew up in Vienna and live in London. This could be culturally confusing…
Yes. I have three mother tongues and I'm not perfect in any. I still speak Japanese with my sister and cousin. Most of the time I'm talking English. But I count music, and do my musical thinking, in German because it's the habit I grew up with.

Do you have rituals outside music?
Each year I snoop around and check out the Darjeeling first flush. I buy the best one and drink it for a year until the new one is out.

You make it sound like Beaujolais Nouveau.
Yes it is, though I don't drink Beaujolais. In 2012 the Darjeeling crop was terrible. A bad year. I drink it out of old china. I also like a particular Belgian chocolate by Pierre Marcolini. You can't get it here. I have to rely on friends travelling to Brussels. I've been to a lot of chocolate tastings in my life.

What's your advice to young musicians?
Listen. Keep your ears open.

The greatest danger to classical music?
Soundbite culture. Music is like a great painting framed in time. You need all of it.

How do you look after your hands?
I don't. Except in winter when my fingers crack I use Vaseline. It's cheap and it works.

So you don't mind doing the washing up?
No. But only in rubber gloves.

Mitsuko Uchida returns to the Proms this Thursday as the soloist in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4, with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. She will also perform at the Edinburgh international festival on 11 & 13 August


Interview by Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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