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.”