Mitsuko Uchida's playing tempts the listener to imagine that the piano may be an extension of her personality. The idea sounds absurd, since we know that pianists, and performing artists in general, "merely" connect the listener with musical works. In Uchida's case, however, mere interpretation is not only artistry of the highest rank but also a mysterious, even supernatural, transformation that rewards the listener with unforgettable spiritual experiences. For example, when Uchida plays Mozart, even the experienced (and perhaps a little jaded) Mozart aficionado hears the familiar music of this great composer as a breathtaking revelation. Only a powerful and original artistic personality can effect this magical transformation of a familiar work into a resplendent vision. Perhaps it is better to say—since spatial terms poorly describe the essence of music—that the piano is thoroughly dominated by Uchida's personality.
As a performer, Uchida has been described as reticent, discreet, even reserved. If so, this is the reticence of an artist who knows that the lightest touch, as evidenced, for example, in her magisterial reading of Claude Debussy's Etudes, can reveal entire worlds of untold splendor, that the softest voice can reach the core of a person's being. The obvious paradox notwithstanding, Uchida demonstrates that listening to music is not a physical act. Indeed, as Alex Ross remarked in the New Yorker, anyone with the appropriate training can play the right notes. "It is another thing," Ross continued, "to play the thoughts within the notes, the light around them, the darkness behind them, the silence at the end of the phrase. That is what inspires awe." Thus, the smallest gesture, the almost imperceptible turn of phrase, or the slightest hesitation reveal unfathomable feelings that no intellectual faculties can either measure or translate into words. Indeed, Uchida never lacks the courage to face the mysterious, even disconcerting, infinity of thought, feeling, energy, and inspiration in a great work of musical art.
Arrival in Vienna
Born near Tokyo, into a not particularly musical family, Mitsuko Uchida nevertheless received piano lessons as a young child. In 1961, when she was twelve, her father became Japan's ambassador to Austria, and the family moved to Vienna, the city of Mozart and Beethoven. The piano lessons continued, but this time at the venerable Hochschule für Musik (Vienna Academy of Music) with Richard Hauser. Her Viennese teacher must have recognized her immense talent immediately, for she gave her first concert at the Vienna Musikverein (concert hall) when she was only fourteen. In 1965 her father was transferred back to Japan, but she stayed in Vienna to continue her musical studies. Recognition came in 1969 when she won first prize at the Beethoven Competition.
The following year brought her a second prize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. According to some critics, this may have reflected the jury's perception that Uchida was a pianist destined to conquer the world. In 1973, deciding that she was a mature and independent artist, and no longer willing to conform to the extreme and exclusive traditionalism of Vienna's musical establishment, Uchida took control of her career. She moved to London, leaving Vienna and piano lessons behind.
After Uchida walked away from the 1975 Leeds Competition with a second prize, she turned her focus from the pursuit of a traditional concert career, including the struggle for recognition, to a dialogue with a great musical genius—Mozart. She spent years studying his music, intentionally ignoring received wisdom, pianistic tradition, and the established ways of playing Mozart "correctly." She went to the source, playing the music and studying the cultural context of Mozart's creative life. Finally, in 1982, she performed the composer's complete piano sonatas in series of recitals in London and Tokyo to immense critical and popular acclaim. Immediately approached by the Philips label, Uchida eventually recorded the sonatas, as well as his piano concertos, establishing what many claim is the unsurpassed standard for Mozart's piano works.
While, for Uchida, Mozart remained a reference point and a constant source of inspiration (evidenced by the fact she is always involved in once Mozart project or another), critics and audiences quickly realized that her artistic vision transcended particular traditions: she was inspired by genius. Thus, for example, when she ventured outside the Viennese tradition, which many deemed her natural domain, she produced, in 1990, a magnificent disc of Debussy's Etudes, which were hailed as one of the greatest recordings of Debussy's music.
During the 1990s, Uchida offered extraordinarily original and suggestive readings, in recitals and recordings of Schubert's piano sonatas. Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, whose piano music in many ways defines their repertoire, Schubert is known primarily for his songs and piano miniatures, in which he displays his exquisite charm, dramatic intensity, and supreme melodic inventiveness. Once again approaching Schubert's music directly, without any preconceptions, Uchida successfully tapped into the spiritual vastness and metaphysical power of this great composer's piano sonatas. "Uchida," wrote Alex Ross, "is a great Schubertian because she takes the music at face value, discarding stereotypes of the composer as a twee [overly dainty] melodist or a doleful martyr."
In an effort to demonstrate that modern music—even in its desire to establish a sonic universe in which tonality (the consistent and predicable presence of clearly defined keys) gives way to an atonal musical language devoid of keys—never completely repudiates its sources, Uchida began to juxtapose Schubert and Schoenberg in her recitals. While critics questioned her truly unorthodox, even unsettling, programming, audiences, without analyzing her decision, appreciated her ability to illuminate the inner worlds of two profoundly different representatives of the Viennese tradition.
The Future: Mozart
Uchida's busy schedule and varied performances also include chamber music, and it is hardly surprising that one such engagement was the performance of Mozart's violin sonatas with violinist Mark Steinberg. The duo performed the complete cyle at London's Wigmore Hall, followed by smaller performances throughout Europe. During the 2002-2003 season she participated in a Japanese chamber music project along with Yo-Yo Ma, Steinberg, and Maria Picinini.
In 2003, after becoming artist in residence with the Cleveland Orchestra, Uchida undertook yet another long-term project: she decided to perform all of Mozart's piano concertos the way Mozart performed them—conducting the orchestra while she played the piano. She featured Mozart and other Viennese composers at Carnegie Hall in April 2004, as part of a chamber music series entitled "Mitsuko Uchida: Vienna Revisited." A laureate of numerous recording awards, Uchida is featured in the Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century CD series.
For the Record . . .
Born on December 20, 1948, in Atami, Japan; daughter of Japan's ambassador to Austria. Education: Studied the piano with Richard Hauser at the Hochschule für Musik (Vienna Academy of Music).
Began piano lessons in Vienna, 1961; began perfoming as a concert pianist, 1962; won first prize in the Beethoven Competition, 1969; moved to London to further career, 1973; focused career studying and mastering the works of Mozart, 1975; recording artist for the Philips label, 1982-; artist in residence with the Cleveland Orchestra, 2003; performed at Carnegie Hall as part of a series entitled "Mitsuko Uchida: Vienna Revisited," 2004.
Awards: Beethoven Competition, first prize, 1969; Chopin Competition, second prize, 1970; Leeds Competition, second prize, 1975; Gramophone Award, for recordings of Mozart's complete piano sonatas, 1989; represented in the Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series, Philips, 1999; Gramophone Award for her recording of Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, 2001.
Addresses: Record company— Decca Music Group, Philips, website: http://www.deccaclassics.com.
(Beethoven) Piano Concertos / Klavierkonzerte Nos.3&4, Philips, 1996.
Mozart Piano Sonatas, Vol. 17, Philips Complete Mozart Edition series, Philips, 1996.
(Schubert) Impromptus Op. 90 & Op. 142, Philips, 1997.
(Schubert) Piano Sonata D. 960, Philips, 1998.
(Schubert) Piano Sonatas D. 840 and D. 894, Philips, 1998.
(Schubert) Piano Sonatas D. 958 and D. 959, Philips, 1998.
(Beethoven) Piano Concerto No. 5, Philips, 2000.
(Schubert) Piano Sonatas D. 845 and D. 575, Philips, 2000.
(Mozart) The Great Piano Concertos, Vol 1, Philips, 2001.
(Mozart) The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. 2, Philips, 2001.
(Schoenberg) Piano Concerto, Philips, 2001.
(Schubert) Piano Sonata D. 568, Philips, 2002.
(Schubert) Piano Sonatas D. 537 and D. 664, Philips, 2002.
(Mozart) Early Piano Concertos, Philips, 2003.
(Mozart) Great Piano Concertos, Vol. 3, Philips, 2003.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 2001.
American Record Guide, March-April, 1996; September-October, 1997; March-April 1999; May-June, 2003.
Gramophone, February 2000.
Guardian (London), October 20, 2000; March 28, 2001.
New Yorker, March 17, 2003.
La Scena Musicale, July 10, 1999.
Time, March 25, 1999.
In a career that has spanned almost 30 years, Mitsuko Uchida (born 1948) has earned her title as one of the greatest classical pianists of the 20th century. She is most readily associated with her ability and recordings of Mozart's piano works and is a sought-after concert pianist worldwide.
Mitsuko Uchida was born in Tokyo, Japan, on December 20, 1948. She was the third child of Fukito Uchida, a diplomat, and Tasuko Uchida, a homemaker. Before Uchida was born her father had served in Europe in the Japanese diplomatic corps during World War II.
Uchida began her piano lessons when she was three years old as part of a traditional Japanese education. She quickly developed a love for classical music, especially Mozart, as she listened to her father's collection of European composers' recordings. She told the Detroit Free Press, "as a small child I remember vividly listening to Mozart again and again." Mozart would prove to be her life's passion at the piano. Although her parents probably never envisioned their daughter becoming one of the most important pianists of her generation, her gift was instantly recognizable from early on. Her father would proudly ask her to play for anyone who would listen. But as she told a group of students at Johns Hopkins once, "My parents wanted me to be an ordinary Japanese housewife. They gave me piano lessons so that I could make them proud… ." Little did they know that she would go on to become one of the great treasures of current classical music and considered one of the best interpreters of Mozart.
Uchida was an inquisitive youth with questions not only about her music but also about life in general. Her curiosity remained unfulfilled while living in Japan. In addition, the Japanese approach to teaching also seemed stifling to Uchida. "There is a tradition in Japanese society that one is not to question," she explained to the New York Times. The customary technique to music education in Japan focused more on the mechanical aspect of training, but Uchida sensed the need for a more interpretive training. Without the background of the Western music tradition, Japanese teachers taught the pure mechanics of the instrument instead of its musicality. She resented the endless rules about notes and formulas because she just wanted to be able to feel and play the music.
At the age of 12, Uchida and her family moved to Vienna, Austria, where her father was a member of the Japanese diplomatic mission. It was in Vienna that Uchida's eagerness for Western music could be satiated. Though the culture was accessible to her, she still did not seem to find what she was searching for musically. While she learned German and began her musical studies in the Viennese school of music under Richard Hauser at the Vienna Academy of Music, she still felt restricted by her instructors. As she related to the New York Times, it was "full of fixed ideas. There are masses of do's and don'ts, and 'music should be played this way.' So I had to get out of that."
London Gave Uchida Her Freedom
Once she came to this realization, Uchida moved to London and ended her formal education at age 22. Enticed by London's independent musical atmosphere, it was there that English became her third "first" language and where she still makes her home. In London Uchida was finally free to explore music on her own terms. For the next several years, Uchida taught herself. She spent all her time studying and listening to music, especially the recordings of the celebrated pianists and conductors of the 20th century. She was especially drawn to Fritz Busch's recordings of Mozart, and her music seemed to go in a new direction. Busch's tasteful liberties with Mozart influenced Uchida to concentrate on the immortal composer's music with great detail, especially the sonatas and piano concertos.
It was playing Mozart's music that gave Uchida her first taste of success. Though she placed first in Vienna's Beethoven Competition in 1969 and second in both Britain's Leeds International and the Warsaw Chopin Competition, these competitions did little to advance or even begin her career. This was acceptable to Uchida, however, who held the belief that a career could and should unfold slowly and at the one's own pace. As she told to Ovation, "My life has been built very slowly and securely. If the career goes ahead of you, there will be one day when you fall off of it."
Broke into Music World with Style
Clearly to Uchida the music is more important than the public image. But the public, once they heard Uchida's mastery, applauded her as one of her profession's finest. It was in 1982 when she gave a series of concerts of the complete Mozart sonatas when listeners in great numbers sat up and took notice of her talent for the first time. Though clearly regarded as one of the finest composers, Mozart's piano sonatas have sometimes been dubbed simplistic. This simply was not so under the careful study and performance of Uchida, who captivated spectators with her thoughtful and intense interpretation of the pieces.
Her reviewers of this series had nothing but radiant praise to bestow upon her. Biography Today quoted a London Times critic who noted: "She does not sing the music; she exists in it." The interviewer had an astute observation; Uchida feels strongly about her interpretation of the music she plays and the relationship she has with the composer. She also has a humble opinion of her ability. From an interview that she had with Catherine Pate of the London Symphony Orchestra Uchida confided, "All I want is that the people will pick up the beauty of Mozart. I don't care if they forget it was me playing it as long as they feel the music!"
A few years after her innovative performances of Mozart's sonatas, she presented all 21 piano concertos in a series of concerts with the English Chamber Orchestra. She conducted these concertos from the piano over the 1985-1986 concert season. Again both audiences and critics were smitten by her ability and expression. She had made the music of Mozart her own while still keeping his intent in the forefront of the music in a way that few performers had been able to achieve. As she revealed in Time, Mozart's music is a "kind of world in itself … so complete that you can forget about the rest. Then you come out, and you are blinded."
The series of sonata and concerto concerts propelled Uchida into the worldwide spotlight. Soon she was performing in concert halls all over the world and recording award-winning CDs. She has recorded her performances of Mozart's piano concertos and sonatas, as well as pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Debussey, and Schubert, just to name a few. Her 2001 recording of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto has won four awards including a Gramophone Award for the best concerto recording.
In preparation for her career and indeed, her mastery of any piece that she chooses to perform, Uchida undertakes the task with intricate deliberation. Not only does she study the music and writings of the composer, but she also searches for insight into what the composer was thinking and how his ideas came about. It was this knowledge of music she craved as a youth in Japan but could not find. Now on her own she was free to discover it. She does this in part by examining music theory with Heinrich Schenker, a theorist, editor, and pianist who is known for his revolutionary method of musical analysis. He has been a great influence on her as she told a group of students she spoke to in 1998 at Johns Hopkins University. "I have found his analysis fascinating… ."
Uchida brings this knowledge and careful preparation to her performances, where audiences and critics alike are privy to it. Critics have praised her incessantly. Time wrote that she "plays … with a remarkable combination of energy and tenderness, a considerable rhythmic freedom and a lovely tone." In the American Record Guide Shirley Fleming wrote "Her range of touch is extraordinary… . Perhaps her overriding characteristic is lyrical flow, captured in … complete elegance of phrasing." Louis Gerber identified her as an artist with "refreshing interpretations of Beethoven's works and clear and pure playing." Uchida has absolutely earned her reputation as one of the world's supreme concert pianists.
By most standards, Uchida is conservative in how many concerts she will give in a year. She tries to keep the number between 50 and 60 a year, though she has done 70 once. She told the New York Times, "It was excessively hard for me. If you stick to two piano concertos plus one recital program, you can play 100 concerts. But I like to play different things. The repertory is so vast." In addition to wanting to play a more varied concert program, she is careful to restrict her numbers to ward off burnout. Even so, she is incredibly busy as an artist. In 1998 she was named the first woman director of the Ojai Music Festival in California. At the same time, she was acting as co-director of the Marlboro Festival in Vermont. She was also an Artist-in-Residence at the Cleveland Orchestra.
Undaunted by the bias the profession has for younger musicians, Uchida has already made plans to perform a series of concerts in 2018. According to Biography Today, "She is already preparing for a series of concerts she plans to give … when she turns 70. That year, she plans to perform Bach's Goldberg Variations and all 48 of his Preludes and Fugues." The music will take her years to prepare, but she is looking forward to it. It is still a joy for her to play the instrument after so many years.
Life outside of performing for Uchida is still consumed with the piano and music. She is a confirmed Londoner and lives in a house there with a separate studio that houses her five pianos. She has never married and has never had children, believing, according to Biography Today, that her career would not have been possible if she had had a child. Because of the travel required, as well as preparation, both children and her work would have suffered greatly. In this way, though she enjoys other activities such as reading and theater, she has little time for much else other than music and it is a positive choice that Uchida has made. As she told Catherine Pate in an interview, "I have no other passions. I like other things, but I only have enough room for one real passion, and that is music."
Harris, Laurie Lanzen, Biography Today, Omnigraphics, Inc., 1999.
American Record Guide, March-April 1996.
The Detroit Free Press, November 28, 1984.
The New York Times, February 23, 1988; October 16, 1988.
Ovation, October 1988.
Time, March 25, 1991.
"Mitsuko Uchida," Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 1989.
"Mitsuko Uchida Biography," Arts Management Group, Inc. website,http://artsmg.com/uchida.htm (January 30, 2003).
"Uchida Speaks at Peabody," Johns Hopkins University website,http://www.jhu.edu/~newslett/03-03-98/Arts/5.html (January 30, 2003). □
talented Japanese pianist; b. Tokyo, Dec. 20,1948. She began training in childhood in her native city, and at the age of 12 became a pupil of Richard Hauser at the Vienna Academy of Music. In 1968 she won the Beethoven Competition, and in 1970 received 2ndprize at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. In 1982 she won particular notice in London and Tokyo for her performances of the complete piano sonatas of Mozart. During the 1985-86 season, she appeared as soloist-conductor in all the piano concertos of Mozart with the English Chamber Orch. in London. On Feb. 15, 1987, she made her N.Y. recital debut. In 1989 she was soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K.271, in Salzburg. In subsequent years, she toured all over the world, appearing as a soloist with leading orchs. and as a recitalist. Her repertoire includes, in addition to the classics, works by Debussy, Schoenberg, and Bartók.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire