The Uchida family acquired an upright piano in 1950 and Mitsuko, the youngest of three children, began piano lessons at the age of three. Ten years later, when she was twelve, her father was appointed ambassador to Austria. The family moved to Vienna where Uchida studied piano with Richard Hauser at the Hochschule für Musik. She made her debut at the age of fourteen with a recital in the Brahmssaal of the Musikverein, but her father made sure that she did not play much in public as a child. After completion of her studies at the Hochschule für Musik, Uchida won the International Beethoven Competition in Vienna, and gained second place in the Chopin Competition in Warsaw. In the early 1970s she attended courses given by Stefan Askenase, Wilhelm Kempff and Nikita Magaloff.
In 1972 Uchida decided to move to London, where she continues to reside. In 1975 she won second prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition and, as with many performers who have gradually built and sustained a career, Uchida slowly gained a loyal and enthusiastic following. It was in 1982, however, that she came to international prominence when she performed a cycle of the Mozart piano sonatas in London.
Although she had already recorded for Philips, her contract was now re-drawn. Under this new long-term contract she recorded Mozart’s piano sonatas, and a few years later all of the piano concertos, ten of which she had played in London and Tokyo: it was these performances and recordings that led to Uchida being hailed as one of the greatest Mozart players of the day. She made her New York debut in 1985, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major K. 467, and her recital debut there in 1987. In 1994 Uchida played a series of recitals of Schubert and Schoenberg in London, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Vienna and Salzburg; and in 1996 she gave the American première of Harrison Birtwistle’s Piano Concerto ‘Antiphonies’ with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Pierre Boulez. Uchida’s repertoire is based around Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven and Bach, eschewing composers such as Liszt, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.
Before 1980 half of her repertoire was of the works of Chopin, and she played (and recorded) Chopin piano sonatas and Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and Kreisleriana Op. 16. The composers of the Second Viennese School are also favourites with Uchida. Webern and Schoenberg are often included in her programmes, which feature an intelligent and interesting juxtaposition of compositions. A recital at London’s Royal Festival Hall in March 2003 consisted of Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 by Schoenberg, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G major D. 894 and Schumann’s Fantasie Op. 17. Of the Schubert sonata one reviewer commented, ‘It is pointless to detail individual moments of heart-piercing elucidation in the face of such great piano-playing.’
Uchida also plays chamber music with violinist Mark Steinberg, their recent performance of the complete Mozart violin sonatas in London receiving great acclaim, and she has performed Schubert with tenor Ian Bostridge. Uchida has recorded some of the violin
sonatas with Steinberg, and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin with Bostridge. Although she does not teach, at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont where she is co-director with Richard Goode, Uchida’s enthusiasm and ability to communicate the essence of certain compositions to young students is thrillingly evident. Whether speaking in public or on radio, about Kurtág or a Schubert manuscript, Uchida’s irrepressible vitality, frankness and enthusiasm for and commitment to music is irresistible.
She immerses herself in the cultural background of each composer she performs, being an avid student of their lives and letters, and it is this wider, all-encompassing intelligence that underpins her interpretations. She is not averse, though, to listening to recordings, admires Schnabel and Fischer, and admits to being influenced by Szigeti, Casals, Furtwängler and Fritz Busch. However, Uchida was always an individualist who wanted to find her own interpretation, not to be told by a teacher: ‘Play it like this, it goes like this.’
Philips signed Uchida in 1982 to record her celebrated interpretations of Mozart. For the next eight years she recorded all the piano sonatas and all the piano concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra and Jeffrey Tate. Discs of core repertoire followed including the two mature piano sonatas of Chopin and all five piano concertos of Beethoven with Kurt Sanderling and the Concertgebouw and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras, the latter recorded over five years. 1990 saw the release of one of Uchida’s most highly acclaimed discs, that of the complete études by Debussy. As with her Mozart, these are highly crafted, deeply thought-out interpretations with the added dimension of a highly evolved technique.
Uchida, by choice, now records less frequently. One project that was close to her heart was her recording of the complete Schubert piano sonatas which she began in 1997 and completed in 2002. These recordings, made in Vienna using one of her own pianos (a 1962 Steinway) have received critical acclaim, and the recording of the great Sonata in B flat D. 960 ranks alongside the greatest on disc with Uchida creating a sound-world and interpretation of deep profundity.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist