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: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.