Artist of the Year:
Mitsuko Uchida

By Clive Paget

With a 50-year career behind her, Uchida combines diamantine precision with an appetite for risk. And when this deeply honest artist tells you she apologizes to her beloved composers every day for not doing them justice, you can imagine her doing just that.

2022 Muscial America Artist of the Year:<br>Mitsuko Uchida
Photo © Justin Pumfrey/Decca.

When her father was posted to Germany in 1964, 16-year-old Mitsuko Uchida opted to continue her studies in Vienna rather that accompany her family to Cologne. It was a big and typically self-reliant decision. “At that point I thought to myself, I’m not sure I have the talent to be a professional pianist, but I shall give it a try. And I’m still trying.” The self-deprecating codicil to that sentence is accompanied by an eruption of the distinctive Uchida laugh, a full-throated chortle that punctuates a typical conversation with this endlessly engaging artist. It’s spontaneous, disarmingly self-effacing, but honest and utterly her own. 

In many ways it’s a direct reflection of her music-making. As a pianist she can startle, her diamantine precision counterbalancing a healthy appetite for risk. Her technique is formidable, yet she’s never showy. As both woman and  musician, she’s quietly focused, intense, and occasionally a little intimidating. In conversation you sense her brain interrogating each sentence before reemphasizing its newly discovered essential truth. So too, at the  piano, each musical phrase is weighed afresh, even the most familiar, for Uchida never tires of the music she loves. With that comes a humility that in someone else might seem like false modesty. But when Uchida tells you that she apologizes to her cherished composers every day for not doing them justice, you can imagine her doing just that. 

Born in Atami, a seaside town not far from Tokyo,  the infant Mitsuko was taken along to her brother’s piano lessons. After about six months, the teacher, whose own son shared the class, approached Uchida’s mother, and said, “That baby you are bringing to the piano lessons, that one is more interested than the two boys put together. So, I want to teach that one.”

Piano lessons commenced at the age of three with further tuition when the family moved to Tokyo, but then everything changed when her father was appointed Japan’s ambassador to Austria. Enrolled at the Vienna Academy of Music, Uchida gave her first recital at the age of 14 at the hallowed Musikverein. “When I came back to my next lesson with my teacher [Richard] Hauser, he said, ‘Now you know you want to be a pianist, don’t you?’ And I said, no. And he was livid!” she relates. “I said, I don’t know what it means to be a pianist, and that was a very honest answer.”

What was important to the teenage Uchida was opera. For much of her first four years in Vienna, Herbert von Karajan was intendant and music director of the Staatsoper. “That was my primary musical education, more than anything else in Vienna at that point,” she reveals. “I remember operas—you don’t know how wonderful they were! My first and second Mimìs were Mirella Freni; and Rosenkavalier with Schwarzkopf and Jurinac as Octavian and so on. Leontyne Price as Aida and Liù, and opposite her was Birgit Nilsson as Turandot. You name them, they were all there.”

As for her chosen discipline: “I didn’t like any of the pianists!” Again, the Uchida laugh. “And when I go back to these people now, I still dislike them. I learned much more about music-making from people like Pablo Casals, Josef Szigeti, Adolf Busch, and Wilhelm Furtwängler than I did from other pianists.”

In 1969, the 21-year-old Uchida won the Vienna Beethoven prize and was placed second the following year in the VIII International Chopin Piano Competition. Soon after she decided to move to London, for typically self-challenging and Uchida-esque reasons. “I thought to myself, Vienna is a place where everybody knows how the music goes and that is a misunderstanding. Life isn’t that simple,” she recalls. “I speak a Viennese German, so that lilt in the language is in my blood. The way I conceive Schubert is very Viennese. And not only Schubert, I play Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern in a Viennese way. But I realized that I knew very little and so I wanted to get out of Vienna.”

For Uchida, England was “a no man’s land” but one that she knew had proved attractive to Handel, Haydn, and Mozart. She admired the Royal Philharmonic Society for commissioning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and sending the ailing composer money with no strings attached. “So, England has a good track record about being open to foreigners,” she declares. “In spite of the class society that’s still existing, there was an intellectual tolerance and a musical tolerance. Since Brexit, no—that was a shocker! Brexit was one of the most shocking events that I have experienced. But England seemed more tolerant to ideas and so it was—and it is.”

Britain, it seems, has enjoyed a mutual love affair with Uchida ever since. She was appointed an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2001 and promoted to a full Dame Commander in 2009 by which time she had become a British citizen. In 2012, her admired Royal Philharmonic Society awarded her its Gold Medal, one of classical music’s top honors. Musically, it was Mozart who brought her fame and fortune. Performances of the piano sonatas at Wigmore Hall, and in Tokyo, and later on in New York, became hot tickets. In 1989 she won a Gramophone Award for her complete cycle recorded on the Philips label. However, despite her Mozart credentials she used to say that Schubert was her true kindred spirit. Today she’s less certain.

“I can talk about what was and what is,” she explains.“Schubert’s world of loneliness, I felt very close to, it’s as simple as that, and Mozart’s world is not lonely. It’s one where the most precise and most amazing compositional genius is falling in love with every beautiful girl in the room. In Mozart’s music, every note behaves as if it were a human being or a child. Every note is wishing to change its mind. It takes a different psychology to play him, I think. You don’t know how much I worked and how bad I felt about not playing Mozart well enough—and I still do.”

Despite having a 50-year career behind her, Uchida still aims to play at least four hours every day (“When I was younger, I practiced so much more because I didn’t know how to,” she laughs). Other passions include her beloved Marlboro Music School and Festival, the coveted Vermont retreat for musicians young and old that she’s led in one form or another since 1999. “One of the things I admire about Mitsuko is her unbelievable conviction about, well, almost everything, really,” says fellow pianist Jonathan Biss who has been her co-artistic director at Marlboro since 2018. “She has a natural authority.”

“Out there, peculiarly, I love everybody. I am very choosy otherwise, but when I am in Marlboro I truly love and protect everybody. That is a fact,” she says. “Jonathan and I share the deep conviction that you can never really know all there is to know about great music, and that it’s worth spending your whole life trying to know a little more. What draws me to Marlboro is the possibility that I will never play this piece as well as I would like but I might come a little closer.”

As we speak, she’s just returned from Vermont and is keen to talk about the experience. “We made it very safe. Everybody was double vaccinated and was tested again, and again, and again,” she says. “The joy of being together and making music together was infinitely stronger than I ever experienced in Marlboro before. And that was a gift.” 

In her downtime, Uchida unwinds by walking, listening to music, or spending time with her partner, a retired diplomat. “I do relax when I am facing the sea—salt water—and listen to the waves,” she adds. “The sound I love, probably because for the first three years of my life I had a view of the sea and a little island in front of my nose.” 

Although she wouldn’t describe any of her pleasures as secret, let alone guilty—“I don’t feel guilty easily,” she laughs—she does have a weakness for collecting porcelain as well as pianos. She also relishes dark Belgian chocolate and a really good red wine, in moderation. “And I love to drink a really good tea,” she adds. “I like Darjeeling first flush, and that I can’t buy in England—another of the disasters of Brexit.”

Her modest discography is highly regarded—she won a Grammy Award in 2011 for her recording of Mozart Piano Concerti with the Cleveland Orchestra—but long ago she made a decision to limit her time in the studio. “It’s not easy to make really, really good music,” she admits. “I know that I’m not talented. I don’t want to do things that I can’t do, and I need more time than most people.”

As for the future, she wants to play more Beethoven—“as if everybody hasn’t played enough Beethoven in 2020,” she laughs, this time hysterically—and at this stage in her career she’s comfortable continuing to explore her favorite repertoire. “More and more I am playing as I see the score, face value,” she explains. “I am not inventing something. I am not imagining something. I try to play as honestly as I can the music that the composer has written. That leads to a certain freedom of choice, so maybe I just stick to playing what the heck I want to!” •

Clive Paget is features editor for the Musical America Directory. A former editor of Australia’s Limelight Magazine, he now writes and reviews for, among others, Musical America, Opera News, and BBC Music Magazine. Prior to his move to Australia, he directed and developed new music theater projects for London’s National Theatre.