Mitsuko Uchida: ‘None of my musical gods were pianists’

She tells Ivan Hewitt of the Telegraph:

‘I loved the violinist Joseph Szigeti, when I heard his recordings of Mozart I was moved to tears. And the cellist Casals. The great piano God in Vienna at that time was Wilhelm Backhaus. I didn’t like him at all, but you couldn’t say that.’

Read the full, rare and frank interview here.

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  • She doesn’t like to give interviews? Ms. Uchida has given more interviews than almost any other pianist alive! And all her interviews are filled with her similarly lofty comments about “sound”. At her most recent Carnegie Hall recital, Ms. Uchida shamelessly played her facilitated version of the Schumann Fantasy: the coda of the 2nd movement is indeed difficult, but that doesn’t give her the right to re-compose it to suit her technical limitations (which she also got away with the last time she played it here). As she was playing, I recalled her first Carnegie Hall performance in 1976, in the finals of the Leventritt Competition. One heard back then, as now, her very same dry, wire-thin sound and constricted dynamic range — much as can be heard in her 1970 Warsaw performance of the Chopin Etude Op. 10#2 that is presented here. Incidentally, the 5 finalists in that 1976 Leventritt competition were Steven de Groote, Santiago Rodriguez, Marian Hahn, Lydia Artymiv, and Ms. Uchida – and the venerable Rudolf Serkin chaired the jury. No 1st prize was awarded, and jury member William Steinberg said to the press “I wouldn’t engage any of them”. So surely Maestro Steinberg would be surprised by Ms. Uchida’s subsequent success. I’m not questioning the breadth of Ms. Uchida’s musicianship, but to tout her as one of the all-time great pianists??? Oh, come on…

  • Steven de Groote (referenced above) was my room-mate at the Curtis Institute in the mid-70’s. We got along famously, though I was a trumpeter and our interests diverged in most areas. There was a Steinway baby grand in our apartment which he seldom touched, as far as I could tell. He seemed much more interested in the then-new push button telephones (as opposed to the clumsy rotary dial). He knew someone in Bell Telephone who knew the overseas codes – which he committed to memory – and one day proudly displayed to me his lightening-fast finger work on perhaps 15 numbers. Holding up the receiver after a one-second burst of blinding finger work I could hear the phone ringing far away he said, “That’s a department store in Tokyo. It’s the middle of the night there.” Since Stephen seldom practiced, as I understood the term (though he was always up for chamber music, even for a tuba recital, often with me as the page turner), and because he wasn’t a prestigious Serkin student, I considered him a total lightweight. He was anything but! Imagine my surprise when he won the Van Cliburn competition a couple of years later. Why, he must have practiced for at least a week! Sadly, he died a few years afterwards and we never re-connected.

  • Yet Serkin reworked the Brahms Second Concerto, stating that “life was too short…”
    Brendel, Barenboim – and many other venerated guardians of the Viennese traditions change the score to make things sound well in big venues – and there is hardly a string player alive who does not make their own ‘edition’ of the works they perform.
    That said, I was rather less taken with Uchida’s Schumann (the last time I heard her) than I was with her astonishing Debussy Etudes. Nothing short of miraculous.

  • As to her reservations about Wilhelm Backhaus, I wonder if she ever heard his early recordings of the complete Chopin études?

    I also did not really appreciate Backhaus’ more recent recordings until I heard his last recording with Böhm of the 2nd Brahms concerto. He recorded this work several times with different conductors and orchestras, some of them not as inspired … but this last one, recorded well into his 80’s, I found very convincing and even humorous (4th movement!).

    Admittedly, humor was not one of Backhaus’ strong points…

  • Uchida’s playing betrays the fact that none of her musical gods were pianists, and that’s hardly a plus: Indeed, had she heard and emulated the piano tone produced by Horowitz, Rubinstein, Cliburn, Cherkassky, and Gilels, she wouldn’t find it necessary to justify her weak, 2-dimensional sound in her interviews.

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