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 sayince spatial terms poorly describe the essence of musichat 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 geniusozart. 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 musicven 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 keysever 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 themonducting 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.
(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.
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