Mitsuko Uchida: 'You have to risk your life on stage'

The internationally acclaimed pianist celebrates her 70th birthday this month. She talks about performing, her ‘four saints’, and why Beethoven is getting in the way of her sabbatical

Time is of the essence for Mitsuko Uchida, pianist supreme and one of the world’s most revered and loved musicians. This Japanese-born, Austrian-raised Londoner blocks her day around long periods of practice in her west London studio. A strict regime suits her need, in life and in music, for both monkish discipline and gregarious, unbuttoned, exhilarating freedom.

Arriving early, I listen outside to a fabulous cascade of virtuosic pianism. This autumn she is touring a series of six Schubert sonatas, with two concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in December, the month in which 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 flings open 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.

In the space of crossing the tiny courtyard and making tea – brown Japanese for her, first flush Darjeeling for me – with sharp attention to temperature and colour, 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 (she’s a dedicated consumer).

The house, her home for over three decades, is simple and ordered. Her long-term partner, Robert Cooper, a retired diplomat, lives next door. While her aesthetic may be minimal, there’s nothing clinical about Uchida. 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 in the past 20 years – 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 I’ll start expanding my repertoire again. Back will come Chopin – as non-German as can be. And I’d love to branch out and play Janáček.”

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida. Press image
‘I’m basically someone who studies and who tries hard everyday’ - Pianist Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Geoffroy Schied Photography

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 …” And she remains artistic director of Marlboro Music, the US retreat for advanced professional musical training in Vermont.

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 professional recital at 14. Two years later, when her family returned to Japan, she stayed on alone to study, soon winning the Vienna Beethoven prize and, in 1975, second prize in the Leeds Piano Competition.

By then she had settled in London. “I’d been in Vienna for a long time. I wanted to get out and London was the place 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 [the 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, ‘Of course Mozart didn’t write it. Der liebe Gott – God – was moving the pen for him.’” Did she agree? Gales of laughter.

“No, no of course not! Mozart’s world is in the world of humans. The music came straight out of Wolfgang’s brains! The speed with which he worked is so different from that absolute, clearcut labour of Beethoven, who you can feel must have spent weeks, 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 composers’ sound worlds at any one time. There’s a purity in her approach, which extends to the limpid precision of her playing. “Now it’s Schubert. Dear Schubert, an unimaginable genius, living a life of such abject loneliness.”

Her London concerts pair Schubert’s middle A minor (D784) sonata with the big, late A major (D959). “I never thought putting those two into the same programme was going to reveal such unbelievable tragedy, clashing in different ways.” These are the kind of discoveries she still makes with works she’s played all her career.

“I am not an obsessive performer. My absolute maximum number of concerts is 55 a year. That’s tiny compared to most, who play at least 100, even as many as 140. That’s madness for me. I couldn’t handle it. I remember Elena Bashkirova, Daniel Barenboim’s wife, saying that for Daniel, a day without a concert is punishment. For me, a day without a concert means I can breathe freely.”

The clock on the table has moved past the allotted hour. We speed up. Can she enjoy concerts?

“Yes, absolutely. And I can listen to music too, without feeling under pressure that I ought to be working.”

What about that moment when she walks on to the platform?

“That’s the moment of truth. 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. That’s why live performances are more interesting.”

Is it possible to avoid risks? “Yes, but the more you know, the harder it is to perform. The risks become so dangerous. 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 of my life that I am allowed to play Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and the music of our own time too, especially that of my beloved friend, György Kurtág – this, to me, is a gift from somewhere. If heaven existed, it’s heaven.”

• Mitsuko Uchida is at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 4 and 7 December, and with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra on 6 February.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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