Lunch With Mitsuko Uchida

The Japanese concert pianist explains why she feels European.

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida acknowledges applause with the Saito Kinen Orchestra December 14, 2010 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Photograph by Don EmmertAFP/Getty Images.

When I phone to book a table at Clarke’s, the west London restaurant Mitsuko Uchida has chosen for lunch, the voice on the end of the line instantly picks up the name. Uchida, one of the world’s most eminent pianists, is well-known here. And yes, I am assured, the table she has recommended “at the back in front of the window” is the one all the regulars want.

When I arrive at 12.30, the restaurant is deserted, with the day’s menu still being printed. The room is small and bright, with a front window looking on to busy Kensington Church Street, and another window behind our coveted table giving on to a courtyard. Uchida arrives promptly and the staff, led by chef-proprietor Sally Clarke in her apron, make a fuss of her.

Uchida’s lunchtime tipple, a glass of orange juice, arrives unannounced. We are occupying the favourite table of the late Lucian Freud, she says. The artist, who died in July, “lived two doors away” and Uchida herself lives nearby. “Normally I refuse to meet people for lunch. It interrupts the day. I’m very slow at waking up and it might be some time before I sit down at the piano. The day flies. If a genie were to come and offer me anything I wanted, the only thing I’d ask for is more time.”

At 62, there are signs of grey flecking her mane of black hair but Uchida seems ageless, as well as remarkably animated for someone who claims to take the morning slowly. Her small talk races off in multiple directions as if, released from the sustained, concentrated solitude of practice at home, she is relieved to have a burst of human company. It doesn’t take her long to survey the menu. No starter – “if I eat too much, I can’t work afterwards” – so we both choose a fish main course.

Born in Atami, a seaside town close to Tokyo, Uchida moved to Europe aged 12 after her father was named Japan’s ambassador to Austria. She studied at the Vienna Academy of Music and gave her first recital at the famed Musikverein, aged 14.

When her parents returned to Japan three years later, Uchida stayed in Austria. Her teachers included Wilhelm Kempff and Maria Curcio, favourite pupil of the legendary Artur Schnabel. Uchida won first prize in the Beethoven Competition in Vienna aged 19 and was second in the Leeds Competition the following year, opening the door to an international career and her move to London. (She became a British citizen in 2001 and was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2009 Queen’s birthday honours.)

Uchida has always been particularly associated with the Viennese classics – Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert – as well as Schumann, Debussy and Schoenberg. When she recorded Beethoven’s hugely demanding Hammerklavier Sonata in 2007, I named it as my disc of the year.

On Monday she participated in the hottest ticket of the London autumn concert calendar – as soloist in the Schumann Piano Concerto with Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Next month she will take the last three Schubert piano sonatas to Tokyo’s Suntory Hall.

But in 30 years at the top of her profession, Uchida has never behaved like a star. Offstage, she prefers anonymity and spends time quietly mentoring young artists through the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.

Dressed in black trousers and shirt with blue waistcoat and a watch pendant, and speaking in an upper-crust English accent flecked with Japanese and German idioms, Uchida defies cultural stereotyping. I ask whether she feels more British than Japanese. “I feel very much a European,” she replies, as two plates of neatly arranged Cornish plaice fillets arrive. Uchida’s interest focuses not on the fish but the chips, which she picks up, one by one, and dips into a pot of dill sauce.

The small restaurant has started to fill and I begin to realise not only why Uchida enjoys eating here but why it’s best to sit at the back, away from the door.

She says she “hardly ever” socialises. “I find it tedious,” she admits. Her partner of more than 30 years is Robert Cooper, a Brussels-based British diplomat. He “occasionally” turns up at concerts and “people mistakenly think he knows nothing about music but he’s very good at rattling off the K numbers” – the chronological catalogue of Mozart’s works created by 19th-century musicologist Ludwig von Köchel.

I suggest that spending her teenage years in German-speaking Europe must have changed her view of the world. Uchida replies with a quote from Isaiah Berlin, the Russian-born British philosopher. “I think what he said was, ‘There are three cultures in me: I have the passion of a Russian. I love to live in England because of the intellectual tolerance. And I am a Jew.’ Well, I was born in Japan, and there’s a Japanese bit of me that I wouldn’t notice: I made a conscious decision not to lose my parents’ language. Musically I flourished when I was speaking German – that was my real musical education – but the people I loved and who influenced me more than my teachers came through my third language, which is English.”

And who were these influences? She mentions the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, the cellist Pablo Casals and the pianist Edwin Fischer, as well as a string of German-Jewish musicians “who were deeply committed to the music and fabulously obstinate”. I point out that none was English. “But England was where I discovered them. Through the English language came my clearer thinking. I still don’t think clearly but I’m working at it. I feel deeply attached to the tolerance of British culture. London is the true cosmopolitan city. You can be yourself.”

But surely, for a world citizen such as Uchida, social etiquette in Vienna or Tokyo cannot be so markedly different? “In England, in spite of the class system, society is more open,” she says. “That’s why Handel and Haydn wanted to come here [in the 18th century]. Musically speaking, it was a no man’s land. In Vienna, everyone thinks they know how Mozart goes. ‘It has to be like this.’ That’s dangerous, because you can’t know it when you are dealing with someone else’s creation. It was the same with Debussy in Paris, so I avoided France. I needed to figure out what was true to my way of listening to music. The no man’s land of England suited me. It is a meeting point of lots of cultures, with no dominant ideology.”

What does she owe, then, to her Japanese heritage? Uchida has become an icon for the hordes of young Japanese who love western classical music but she no longer has family ties there. Her niece, born in Germany and now working in London, “is more Japanese than me. She knows the social code of the Japanese language. It’s not a language to clarify your thoughts but to work out your relationship with your neighbour. It’s to do with the degree of familiarity and how to degrade your family by talking up the people you are talking to. [Speaking Japanese is] not just a science but an art form.”

Perhaps I have touched a nerve. Dipping another chip into the dill sauce while a waiter tops up our mineral water, Uchida seems unstoppable. “Japanese culture has two extremes – utter simplicity and over-the-top vulgarity. The Japanese culture of paper-making is one of the most beautiful I know: it’s a handicraft bordering on art.”

And the vulgarity? “Have you never visited a Japanese household? The traditional image is of clear-cut lines, everything so simple, nothing to be seen except the tatami mat. Today, every tiny Japanese apartment is crammed with a mishmash of souvenirs, east European embroidery, a candle from Greece, a German plate, a good-luck cat with one hand up – superstitious things you can buy at a temple. There’s an obsession with labels but no judgment of what constitutes vulgarity. People are more affluent. There’s a lack of confidence about tradition because the Japanese are still enthralled with western culture. But when I look at [the classical music boom in] China, Japan and Korea, the only country where they seem to be genuinely music-loving is Korea.”

Really? Such an opinion may not go down well with Uchida’s Japanese fans. “Probably not, but that’s my experience. At the end of the second world war, there was an urge to overtake the west. Today, that sort of gigantic strength is in China. The energy [in Japan] is not so strong any more. It used to be that we were ‘always right’. It’s no longer so simple.”

And, I ask, did March’s earthquake and tsunami, with the ensuing nuclear fallout, somehow reinforce that decline of national self-confidence? Mention of the Fukushima nuclear disaster momentarily punctures Uchida’s ebullience. She believes no other nation would have reacted so calmly after suffering such hardship, which, she points out with feeling, is still going on. She says it’s a quality of the Japanese that they “endure” – a word that sends her on another tangent. “My mother used to say, ‘Women are to endure.’ That’s what she was taught. I said, ‘Why only women?’ If I had stayed [in Japan], I hope I would have been intelligent enough to quit music.”

“Until I left, I had never heard a professional orchestral concert. I never knew such music existed. I went to the Toho music school [one of Japan’s leading conservatoires] but so much time was wasted. What they valued was how loud the music was, and how fast. The scope for understanding anything deeper would have been impossible. That’s why Vienna was a revelation.”

I tell Uchida that such opinions sound almost hostile to Japan. She disagrees. “I’m not anti-Japan. I’m an outsider. Nationality means nothing to me, it’s not an issue, but it is for most Japanese. For me, what counts is judging things on their merit. That’s why I am against positive discrimination for African-Americans. [In the US] every board has to bend over backwards to select African-Americans. It’s a fact – they really need to push it. Music schools and orchestras have to be seen to have them. If there are two people applying for a place, they take the African-American, even if the other is a little bit better. That’s reverse racism. I don’t go for colour, race or sex. I don’t give a damn. I’m not a feminist. If there is a heaven – I’m not a Christian – and if I arrive at the gate and they ask me what I am, all I will say is, ‘Musician.’”

For dessert, Uchida chooses the dark chocolate mousse and homemade nougat tart; I go for fruit crumble with cinnamon cream. Having listened to her views on Asian musical life, I decide it is time to mention Lang Lang. The Chinese pianist, still in his twenties, has developed a huge following without convincing everyone that he has musical depth. He has also become very rich. I want to know Uchida’s opinion. Even though we are now quite relaxed, she is circumspect. Sizing up the desserts that have appeared, she says that “in 10 years’ time we might talk [about the Lang Lang phenomenon]. It might have disappeared by then. If not, I might say, ‘Well done, Lang Lang.’”

Naming no names, then, how does one start to assess musical quality? Uchida argues that everyone is born with “a certain musicality” but the degree of facility with which it is exercised varies from person to person. “What truly matters,” she says, summing up, “is that your love of music is stronger than your love of yourself. Success will come if you have something [musical] to say. Some people have success with very little to say. They are lucky. There is a hit and miss factor in life and you have to accept it.”

The restaurant has started to empty: we were first to arrive and, more than two hours later, we are almost the last to leave. Uchida downs her coffee quickly. I settle the bill and we make for the door, where she chuckles to the waiter that she has already booked a table for December. As we spill out into the sunshine, Uchida is still talking about music. “There is no perfection. One works and if one is lucky, one discovers something every day. At a certain time one must have the courage to stop, and that’s that.”

But for Uchida, now is the time to start. With a quick “goodbye”, she heads back to her piano.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.