IN: Reviews

Bold Soundscape from Pianist Tsujii


Michael Rocha photo

Buzz and curiosity were palpable as a large audience dotted with musical luminaries flowed into New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Saturday evening, April 9. A highly anticipated Event was about to take place —a solo recital by the Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, presented by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts.

Tsujii (“Nobu”), whose congenital microphthalmia denies him the sense of sight, has become a worldwide musical sensation since capturing the gold medal at age twenty in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He has amassed a formidable repertoire, including large-scale concerti, accrued almost exclusively by ear, albeit with occasional help from Braille scores. From single-hand recordings made by his teacher, Nobu first learns the right- and left-hand parts independently, then somehow conflates the two into a startlingly coherent whole. Absolute pitch no doubt helps (neurologist Oliver Sacks estimates that some one-third to one-half of the congenitally blind have perfect pitch); little Nobu at the age of two can be seen  accompanying his mother on a toy piano here. In case you’re curious, for concerti, Tsujii takes his cues from the conductor’s breathing.

Nobuyuki’s Saturday evening program progressed chronologically from Classical to early Romantic to mid-Romantic, with his interpretive success following an upward trajectory. Nobu has a cherubic, almost cuddly, stage presence, which is in stark contrast with his approach to the piano. His playing is firm and percussive, with an emphasis on precisely articulated legato. After quickly orienting himself at the keyboard, his hands stay close to the keys. Notes are never pulled from the instrument, rather, they are emphatically pushed. The considerable power he generates seems to come primarily from his fingers, with body and arms remaining quite still. Aside from his highly active hands, Nobu’s shaggy head is the most animated part of his anatomy, rotating forcefully and frequently to and fro, perhaps allowing him to hear the music from different angles as it reverberates around the hall. His aural palette leans towards the primary and opaque; not much subtle pastel or limpid translucency in his soundscape. Interestingly, Nobuyuki explains that he imagines colors as he plays: “I like blue and orange, so I visualize those colors when I perform. I try to think which color would go with which piece.”

This sort of forceful, Beethovenesque approach fits some works very well, while being highly inappropriate for others. Alas, the opening selection, Mozart’s pellucid Sonata No. 10 in C Major, K. 330 requires an entirely different flavor of interpretation. In Nobu’s powerful hands, the result was decidedly robust, with an unfortunate dearth of lyricism and phrasing. Guessing this might have actually startled Herr Wolfgang. Fortunately, immediately on the heels of this piece was quintessential Beethoven: the aptly named (though not directly by Ludwig himself) “Tempest” sonata, No. 17 in d minor, Op. 31, No. 2. This fit Nobu’s hands like the proverbial glove, at least the outermost tempestuous movements. Fiery and highly energized, the first movement Largo-Allegro and final Allegretto crackled with verve and excitement, and showcased Tsujii’s astonishing accuracy and immense technical prowess. We won’t mention the second movement.

Modest Mussorgsky, a larger-than-life Russian who succumbed to the ravages of alcoholism at the age of forty-two, created his most well-known piano work, Pictures at an Exhibition, in a paroxysm of composing following the similarly premature death of his friend, artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. This suite of movements aurally portrays an imaginary tour of a retrospective collection of the artist’s works. Nobu Tsujii’s recreation of this evocative and colorful music proved to be the highlight of the evening. Passages ranged from delicate to athletic; from playful to sinister; from majestic to frenetic. Tsujii explored a broader tonal spectrum and displayed a near-flawless burst of keyboard pyrotechnics. The music sparkled.

Following an enthusiastic standing-o (which hopefully the performer could sense), Tsujii obliged the highly receptive audience with three encores: two of his own compositions and a well-known Chopin bonbon, Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15, the “Raindrop.” Nobu’s own music is sunny and straightforward, and he obviously enjoyed sharing it with us, as evidenced by his beaming smile. The pastels of the Chopin were lacking, though a much sweeter and more intimate interpretation may actually be found on his website here. This version makes one wonder as to how much of Nobu’s heavy tone was a function of venue and instrument. Perhaps there was a bit of overcompensation for the hall? Perhaps the overly-bright tone of the piano was a factor?

Nobuyuki Tsujii is a captivating, albeit enigmatic, musician. He is the embodiment of optimism and perseverance; an inspiring and ebullient example for us all as he conquers challenges and acknowledges no obstacles. The fact of his prodigious musical accomplishment is a testament to preternatural talent, hard work, neural plasticity, and an indomitable spirit. He’s also a curiosity, and this no doubt factors in to his meteoric rise to fame. The possibility of a sustained and meaningful career certainly exists, if Tsujii can succeed once the public’s initial curiosity is sated. Playing to his strengths by focusing on repertoire appropriate to his approach and technique would undoubtedly help him down the path of a long-lived and fulfilling musical journey. I wish him well.

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer:  He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.





9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful review of Noubyuki Tsujii’s Boston debut recital. Great observations – you have obviously done your homework on Nobuyuki Tsujii.

    I agree with you on the Beethoven sonata and Mussorgsky’s suite — at age 22, I think Nobu’s renditions of these two works can hold up to some of the biggest names in the business.

    I must, however, respectfully disagree with your assessment of the Mozart. I thought the first movement especially was vivacious and sparkling, with a delicate touch that is the signature of Nobuyuki Tsujii (especially in his recordings) — and beautiful to my ears.

    Nobuyuki Tsujii is a young man with a lot of energy, and his music reflects it. The “boyishness” in his music is one of the reasons that I have become a big fan. He has plenty of time to grow and improve, but the emotional bonding that he has with his audience is something that most other pianists can only envy. This was the fourth concerts of his that I personally attended, and he brought down the house every time. I disagree that the audience’s enthusiasm stems from curiosity: I spoke to many in the Jordan Hall crowd and they already knew who Nobuyuki is and came to the concert for Tsujii’s music, not out of curiosity.

    Comment by Mei-Ling L. Liu — April 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

  2. I think the review was very good, very fair and pointed out the good suggestions of where he should move in the future. He will have his Carnegie Hall debut on 11/10/2011.

    Comment by Cathy Chan — April 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm

  3. Please indulge me to make a couple more comments.

    “His (Tsujii’s) playing is firm and percussive, with an emphasis on precisely articulated legato.” This is not necessarily always the case, Nobu in fact has a delicate touch and fluidity that I greatly admire, as exemplified by his performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 at the 2009 Cliburn Competition (which you can still see on the Cliburn webcast site) and Chopin’s Nocturne No. 8, Op. 27 (which you can watch at

    And, out of curiosity, may I ask what exactly did you not like about the legato movement of the Beethoven Sonata?

    Comment by Mei-Ling L. Liu — April 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  4. Hello Mei-Ling ~

    Thanks very much for your insightful comments. Certainly points out the subjective aspect of the musical experience.

    I too greatly admire Nobuyuki Tsujii for what he has accomplished, and look forward to what he has to offer as he continues to mature as a musician. As for the second movement of the Beethoven, to my ears it just didn’t hold together, chiefly due to the extremely controlled tempo Nobu chose. Also felt that his weighty legato didn’t allow the music to adequately breathe. Yet another subjective opinion, for what it’s worth! . . . .

    Comment by Michael Rocha — April 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm

  5. This was a most remarkable recital, and very inspiring to see how someone has overcome such obstacles in life. Anyone who has the opportunity should not miss the chance to see him. It is witnessing a miracle. The Beethoven and Mussorsky were extremely enjoyable and congratulate him on his success both musically and technically! I agree with Michael that the Mozart came across as mechanical. I would encourage him to go back and rethink his approach. He certainly has the technical toolkit and musical understanding to make this more special. Maybe he was understandably nervous for his opening piece.

    Comment by Nick Larsen — April 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm

  6. One week later on April 15 Friday, Nobuyuki Tsujii performed this same recital at Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania, to a sold-out crowd. I cite below a quote from a review posted online:
    “The Mozart Sonata opened the program, sounding as if someone had switched on a sparkling music box. It was light and lively, perhaps a bit mechanical sounding, but delightful and toy-like in its nearly absent rubato.”

    Comment by Mei-Ling L. Liu — April 16, 2011 at 7:49 pm

  7. The reviewer for the Muhlenberg College recital sounded like a lightweight. Does he really believe that playing three pieces from memory is “mind-boggling?” How many piano recitals has he attended?

    Does Ms. Liu believe that the reviewer’s characterization of the Mozart as , “…without rubato” is a compliment?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 16, 2011 at 8:13 pm

  8. It is astonishing to see such a quick response to a comment that I just added to a week-old article! I am quite flattered, actually.

    > The reviewer for the Muhlenberg College recital sounded like a lightweight. Does he really believe that playing three pieces from memory is “mind-boggling?” How many piano recitals has he attended?

    Ah, a little bit of snobbishness here. The Lehigh Valley, where the Muhlenberg College is located, is no cultural backwater – I can assure you.

    > Does Ms. Liu believe that the reviewer’s characterization of the Mozart as , “…without rubato” is a compliment?

    Yes and no. The writer is merely stating his observation. Nobuyuki Tsujii is perfectly capable of playing with rubato – as anyone who was at the Cliburn Competition performances — or who watches Tsujii’s videos — can readily see.

    Comment by Mei-Ling L. Liu — April 16, 2011 at 9:18 pm

  9. Readers can learn more about Ms. Liu’s enthusiasms from her website:

    Nobuyuki Tsujii Fans

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — April 17, 2011 at 11:23 am

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