MITSUKO UCHIDA ON SCHUMANN


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...

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