There’s Nothing Like a Piano-playing Dame

Here is Mitsuko Uchida – now Dame Mitsuko Uchida – playing Chopin’s Etude Op.10 No.2 at the Chopin Competition, Warsaw, in 1970. Incredible what pops up on YouTube these days.

I am all for Mitsuko’s Damehood, which was announced earlier this month in the Birthday Honours list. She’s one of the world’s greatest musicians, not just the greatest pianists, and her concerts have been among my most cherished moments in the Royal Festival Hall – the last three Beethoven sonatas, Schubert’s ethereal G major Sonata, the Schumann C major Fantasie… Born in Japan, trained in Vienna, she’s lived for many years behind Portobello Road and is the epitome of all that a cultured cosmopolitan London artist can be. And she makes a dead good cup of tea. I don’t think there has been a pianist Dame for quite a while. The most recent I can find is Dame Moura Lympany, who received the honour in 1992.

I’ve mixed feelings about the honours list, though. It is terrifically valuable for singing out the undersung heroes – the conductors of amateur orchestras or the tireless animateurs of music education who work desperately hard generally for little recognition out of sheer passion and belief in what they do. But as public figures go, along with the sure-fire winners there’ve been some very big holes.

Remember the ‘Nod for Tod’? A few years back, Gramophone Magazine launched a petition to suggest that Vernon ‘Tod’ Handley should receive a knighthood. Handley did more for British music than probably any other conductor of his generation, championing repertoire that few others could be bothered to touch, and doing it proud. But while other senior Brit conductors, many far less interesting than him, were virtually queuing up outside Buckingham Palace, Tod was left out in the cold and died last year without anyone having bade him to arise.

Why? Could it be because he was a difficult character by many accounts, unpredictable, temperamental, perhaps a bit unstable? Was that any reason to deny him due recognition? He was no less a great man for it. His colleagues loved him, his judgment of and support for younger musicians was sterling and the music world is a sadder place without him.

Unless I am very much mistaken, this country’s two favourite home-grown violinists, Nigel Kennedy and Tasmin Little, haven’t been anywhere near Buck House either – again while less fashionable, glamorous, controversial, communicative, outgoing, imaginative [delete as applicable] musicians have trotted along for Os, Cs and Ms. It all makes one wonder whether the Establishment is just plain scared of anyone who dares to be a little bit different, to think freely and for themselves, creating their own path rather than following the flock?

On the other hand, I know of one fellow of considerable artistic and musical clout who, when he received the Piece of Paper offering him some letters finishing with BE, wrote straight back saying: “Which empire?” And that was that. 

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