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Mitsuko Uchida: No fixed ideas

Mitsuko Uchida discusses Schumann as weirdo, tempo as translation, the difficulty of Mozart and the transcendence of late Schubert.

By Ben Finane

BORN NEAR TOKYO, RAISED IN Vienna, and residing in London, pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s English–Japanese–Viennese accent and cadence shifts, advances and recedes with the suddenness and serenity of Muhammad Ali in the ring. She is one of the great pianists — equally at home speaking many languages and many composers: Bach, Berg, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, Schoenberg, all played with romance and imagination, yet also with spine and verve.

Uchida had long served as co-artistic director with pianist Richard Goode at Vermont’s celebrated Marlboro Festival; this year, following Goode's retirement, she finds herself steering the ship solo. I joined Uchida at Marlboro over lunch, along with pianist Jonathan Biss. The pair discussed an inexplicable modulation in Beethoven’s Op. 110, both attempting to sing along, Uchida at one point pushing back her tray to play piano on the table. Balled-up paper napkins whizzed past my head. I was assured this was normal. Biss, the intended target, did not return fire. A small boy across the dining hall grinned at me. I met later with Uchida later at her festival cabin for more subdued and less wonky conversation. She served tea and local chocolate, the latter being her minor vice.

What were you saying at lunch about Schumann being a weird guy?

Weird composer; weird way of thinking. But he never really had a proper composition education. He was just so talented, and would play and improvise music because he loved it so much. He came to piano playing very late in his life. When he went to [Clara Schumann née] Wieck’s class, he was nearly twenty. So he went to the Wieck household, but was compositionally self-taught: an autodidact. He had all this imagination, which he used in his own way. He knew great composers — like Beethoven’s music — bloody well, and he knew Bach’s music quite well. I’m pretty sure he looked at Mozart too. Of course, he rescued the C-major Schubert Symphony [the ‘Great’] by going to Vienna and visiting Schubert’s brother’s house. The brother just had it lying around, you know, in a pile of papers. Schumann was an interesting, imaginative composer. It is very difficult for his work to stand out now, because the musical world — particularly for the pianist — has so much music, and it is so difficult to compare other composers against Johann Sebastian Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven. And Franz Schubert — that’s another genius.

That’s your ‘Big Four?’

Yes, my ‘Big Four.’ And Schumann I adore, but he gets pushed aside so easily, you see. Another genius is Chopin. He is a genius as a composer. Not only that he was a great pianist, but he had such harmonic imagination in his composition. I play Brahms, and it is so beautiful. But Schumann gets neglected so easily by the public. I have known people who would love Brahms, or Chopin. It is rare to find someone who is mad about Schumann, but I love him very much.

But what’s weird about Schumann?

Weird? Well, he had many interesting ideas, and he took a lot of inspiration from Beethoven’s way of composing — when you look at some of Beethoven’s late music, and how his counterpoint worked.  Schumann has fantastic polyphony, a unique style that is very difficult to follow. And you have to be really aware not to lose it — he does so himself, sometimes! You have to follow and enjoy the beauty of voices getting lost, or you have to cross two different lines to get the music going. Sometimes he even has a motivic unit that he’ll twist in half. Then you have totally different dissonances, and possibilities for dissonances.

And the rhythm, of course, is constantly shifting. He probably learned this from Beethoven at the end of his life when he does things out of polyphonic thinking. Schumann uses the shifts very freely. I find it really quite dramatic, as well as the weirdness of some of the music that he wrote before he was a real mental case. I suppose he was a kind of manic-depressive, what may have been diagnosed today as bipolar, but it was largely untreatable then. Earlier in his career, there are manic pieces and then he goes into a depression, but the late pieces are beyond that. In the very late ones, his sense of tempo becomes markedly different from the normal sense of tempo. He puts minimal markings in his earlier works, though those aren’t always reliable. But in very late works, such as the Gesänge der Frühe, when you stick to his tempi, you get different music. If you played the notes as they are written, then it becomes more ‘normal’, but if you follow his tempo markings it becomes such a strange world.

Does every piece of classical music have its ‘right’ tempo that you try to hit on? Or can you have equally convincing interpretations of the same work with different tempi? 

Everybody plays a different tempo! There is no such thing as the ‘right’ tempo. Every tempo could be right, and every tempo could be wrong. The same metronome marking could sound completely wrong or totally spot on, depending on who’s playing. With tempo, under normal circumstances, there is a certain feel to it. Every composer uses the markings differently, and of course    depending on the time during which the piece was written, the meaning [of the markings] changes as well. The expression ‘allegro’ did not mean ‘fast’ at first, allegro was ‘happy.’ Then it became a tempo marking of ‘faster’, and every composer had a different notion of it. And each performer has a different notion of it, so you have to find your —

Your own translation of it?

Exactly, it is no more than a translation. Never repeat what you thought was right yesterday.


There are many pianists who find themselves, again and again, coming back to Bach. I feel that you find yourself coming back to Mozart.

Yes. As well as Bach; as well as Beethoven; and I hope that one day I will go back to Chopin, whom I adore. But right now I am in a Germanic phase, and have been neglecting Chopin. When you neglect a composer, he pays you back. Right now, he is cross with me, and so I will need to give him a bit more time. Right now I am really immersed in the Diabelli Variations and some other Beethoven as well. There are so many Beethoven piano concerti, the Diabelli, and a number of Mozarts in my performance repertoire right now because I am still recording live with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Right. And how’s that going? You’ve known Mozart a long time; how has your relationship with him changed?

It changes all the time. One discovers ever more, and with a composer like Mozart — as well as Bach and Beethoven, but specifically Mozart — the relationship has become more precise for me, and he has become more friendly towards me.

What do you mean by ‘more precise?’

I can enjoy his genius more than I used to. It was a total mystery for years and years, even decades, I promise you. I remember playing as a child and I never understood what the heck was happening. I disliked what I was hearing from my hands and I disliked many other people as well; it was a difficult relationship.

What wasn’t gelling, if I may ask?

So much wasn’t gelling! He’s so complicated; the great composers all are.

The trick is to make them not sound complicated.

They are so complex. You know who I could play quite decently at the age of thirteen? Debussy. And, at fifteen, Schoenberg.

Did you just think you were playing them decently?

No, I was actually doing it, I have even heard some tapes. That was okay! I knew I got Schoenberg Opus Eleven when I worked very hard. I thought, ‘Gee, I’m getting it!’ Did I ever think about Beethoven? No. Schubert? No. Mozart? Wow, no way! These days I can play these composers on stage and not feel completely desperate. And that is a real advantage of getting old and having spent all these years working. I had more access to Schubert — and it has nothing to do with Vienna. 

Ah, that would have been my follow-up question….

I had access to Schubert’s music, a certain loneliness particular to Schubert. His loneliness was something that I could associate with my loneliness. Mozart doesn’t show loneliness that easily. Most of the time he was with somebody, flirting, and you thought he really loved you, but three seconds later he is elsewhere — that type of guy. The imagination and naturalness of Mozart’s music is that he was a person who could do something so ordinary, like being in the tonic. You come back to the tonic and it’s total magic, even mysterious. Being in the tonic in tonal music is not supposed to be mysterious.

It’s supposed to be terra firma.

Yes, exactly. Firmly having come home. And not the deliberate action of shaking the ground like Beethoven does at times. He knows that he is hitting the tonic, but he shakes it anyway, lets you know. It is a deliberate action, ‘a premeditated crime,’ as I say. But in Mozart’s case, you land there and you gasp at the mystery of the place you landed. That is genius; how could I understand something like that?

Is Mozart saying you can never really go home again?

No, he’s not. He’s not telling you anything. It’s not something he’s lecturing about, it’s just the feeling you get and you have to live with it. How do you transmit that mystery to other people who are with you? That is what you want to do as a performer. If you feel that you’ve reached a place of mystery, you want to share it with the audience. That is why I thought ‘I can’t do anything with these great people!’ But it’s a constant trial and error. That is why life is so fantastic!

You said that you had an early affinity for Schoenberg.

Yes. And he, of course, comes and goes as well. When I was in my mid-teens, he was more understandable to me than what I was playing. My performances were better than when I played Mozart or Beethoven, or Schubert even.

It must have been wonderful to work with [the now late Pierre] Boulez with your Schoenberg recording [(Decca)]. After all, he is one of the great illuminators of that repertoire.

Yes, he really illuminates a score. The complicated score — in Boulez’s hands — he puts the light through and he can make it more understandable. 

It is remarkable. But we need more Boulezes — and Uchidas, too — to shine the light. There’s still an audience disconnect.

Yes, but take Mozart as an example. He is incomparably more difficult to play than Schoenberg! Even now!


Because the music has something different to say, and you can’t ever hit it quite right. 

Schoenberg’s message is clearer? He leaves less room for interpretation?

Quite clearer, though he does leave some room for interpretation. But it is just so impossibly difficult to play people like Mozart, and that is the beauty of it.


It’s funny, because we tend to associate Mozart with such transparency. At least from a listener’s perspective.

Have you heard so many wonderful Mozart interpretations? You are lucky. I have heard some. I must say, a friend edited some recordings of very early 78s. Mozart on 78s! Among them I found some really wonderful performances: [Leon] Goossens, the oboe player; Marcel Moyse playing the flute concerto; some amazing things from the twenties. The E-flat Symphony, No. 39, conducted by Erich Kleiber. It’s very straight, very masculine, and yet it is so beautiful, almost like Beethoven. There are all the different possibilities, and of course some of them will be wonderful performances. I was woken up to different Mozart interpretations through Fritz Busch. He had a greater insight into Mozart than anyone I heard in my Viennese time. Particularly the post-Second World War excerpts of Così and Idomeneo. I thought those were so beautiful. So Fritz Busch led me into the possibilities of a different way of hearing it. My Viennese teachers were quite stiff, but this gave me the courage to experiment myself — and it took decades and decades to get anywhere. But, having said that, at the end of the day you can only learn about a composer from the composer himself. Because ultimately, you don’t want to repeat someone else’s mistakes. 

Apart from realizing composer intent, which I know for you — along with most great musicians — is the top priority, does each composer require a different set of priorities?

No! You can’t have preoccupations, you can’t think of some genius’s music with your fixed ideas. You can’t have fixed ideas about anybody!

Never repeat what you thought was right yesterday.

Everything’s a tabula rasa.

Every time. Every day, if possible.

But one must build some kind of relationship with a work. Yet must you always cast that off to view the work with fresh eyes?

Of course! Even with tempi, it may be a tiny bit different, but that variation opens up the opportunities. Even the slightest hair of a difference.

On my drive up to Marlboro I took the opportunity to have an Uchida marathon, and listening to those last three Schubert sonatas [D. 958, 959, 960 (Decca)] in succession is such a special ­— it’s hard even to put into words... those three pieces have something transcendent. And I don’t like to throw that word around, but it seems appropriate here.

I think of those three like this: it’s quite clear that Schubert wrote all three of them within a month. He was working on it a little bit — there is a preliminary sketch — in August and he wrote them down September of 1828 — and in November he was dead. So it’s really very late and the only major piece that came after was the C major string quintet. In a way, the C minor [D. 958] truly captures the agony, the tragedy of life. The middle section of the slow movement! If there has ever been a mad scene, that is it. Probably about having to die at the age of thirty-one. It’s different from Die schöne Müllerin, which is more of a suicide note — he thought it was the end of his life, when he was writing it — it is the suicide note of a young man, and at the end the brook takes the young man to the sea. He has jumped into the brooklet and the brooklet is taking him into the sea. And of course the poem is that, but it is beyond the poetry; there is the immediacy of death and death by suicide. 

But those three sonatas, like the A major [D. 958], are just absolute madness. There is the church bell ringing. Yet there are still, in between, moments of relief and warmth. But the B-flat [D. 960], that piece is transcendent. It ends so surprisingly. I won’t talk about it too extensively or people would think they have to listen to it that way, and I don’t want anybody to think that you have to listen to music in any particular way. You have to find your way; what I feel is my private business. But the B-flat is so transcendent and ends in such a surprising way, so that is all I can say. It has got everything from madness to the transcendental that carries you to another world. Winterreise, too, carries you to another world. The first half is fine, a lot of things happen, but in the second half, it’s like he is on a little cart that is rolling and rolling but cannot be stopped. You want to stop it but there is no way, and way off in the distance you can see the Leiermann standing in the snow waiting for you. Wow! But every piece is different. The last sonata is not like that, but it is going into the next world all the same.   

Mitsuko Uchida on her four Steinway Concert Grands

Once you start playing on a Steinway [Model] D, then you play differently. They are a different animal. I’m sure I now know much more about pianos, particularly Steinways, by playing D only for more than twenty years. And that is a privilege to have. My choice is rather to have good pianos in my studio than to have a country house with God knows what, a Rolls Royce, or jewelry. I don’t need any of that. But I have really beautiful pianos and I look after them.


This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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