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In performance: Nobuyuki Tsujii

Web-only review:

Blind Cliburn winner makes notable, much-hyped DC debut
By Robert Battey

Noboyuki Tsijii on his way to gold at the 2009 Cliburn Competion (Altre Media/Van Cliburn Foundation)

At the 2009 Van Cliburn competition (one of the world's most prestigious piano showcases), Haochen Zhang, then 19 and the youngest entrant, walked off with the Gold Medal -- the first Chinese artist to do so. But Zhang is likely to have the most difficult time of any Cliburn winner in establishing a solid career: He shared the prize with Nobuyuki Tsujii, a Japanese artist blind from birth.

Explosive publicity has surrounded the phenomenon of Tsujii, whose concert requests worldwide are piling up faster than he can honor them. Japan's NHK network has been following Tsujii's tour, and was at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon for his WPAS-presented Washington debut, interviewing patrons as they left.

In a challenging but narrow program of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Mussorgsky, Tsujii displayed a control of the keyboard that would be impressive from any pianist; that he did so entirely by muscle memory boggles the mind. Tsujii was virtually note-perfect all afternoon; his finger independence in Mussorgsky's "Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells" and "Limoges" was extraordinary, and his firm control of great washes of keyboard sound in Liszt's "Un Sospiro" was impressive.
(read more after the jump)

All that said, this remarkable artist is 21, and has much studying to do before his interpretations probe more than the obvious musical layers of his repertoire. Of still greater concern is the shakiness of his musical pulse, the absence of natural phrasing (even a simple metrical feel) and the tendency to rush. Even in a piece he otherwise handled poetically, the Chopin Nocturne in D-flat, the music was like a river -- in a bad way. Inflections were like afterthoughts, if they were even perceptible.

Sadly, most of this is probably tied to his disability. Tsujii learns music not through Braille (which is available), but by listening to custom-made recordings of the notes for each hand, played slowly, by his teacher. This means he does not absorb bar lines, time signatures, note values, complex phrasing indications and the variety of accents carefully set out by the composer. In order to judge distances around the keyboard, he has to keep his torso absolutely still, which prevents him from moving in any natural way, feeling the underlying pulse. Lastly, the most amazing feature of his technique is how he handles large leaps. When there's time, he takes an instant to check his position, which adds an extra maneuver to what should be a free, organic ballet of the hands. All of these issues add up to music-making that never sounds completely comfortable or sure of what it's about. Still, he is a remarkable, inspiring person.

-- Robert Battey

By Anne Midgette  |  May 3, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , local reviews  
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A frustrating, disappointing recital. Filter out the obvious--Tsujii's achievement despite his blindness--and we have a performer who is simply not ready for prime time. Though well-assembled from its requisite parts, there was little that was unified, organic or soulful in the entire program.

The program was also marred by Tsujii's very audible heavy breathing throughout the recital. Another concert-goer likened it to the late Glenn Gould's notorious humming while he played; I found Tsujii's frequent "escaping steam" sounds significantly more distracting. Perhaps if Tsujii had been able to present the music as a unified whole, rather than as the sum of its parts and layers, his onomatoapoeia would have been easier to tune out, rather than adding further to the fragmentation of the music.

I'm sorry if this comes off as churlish, and, judging from the enthusiastic audience response, mine is a minority view. As a "phenomenon", Tsujii certainly delivered. As an interpreter of great music, not so much.

Posted by: jrosenstock | May 3, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Naysayers remind me of Samuel Johnson's sourly dismissive remark "it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." I saw a webcast of Tsujii playing Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata (perhaps the most challenging work in the canon) in last summer's Van Cliburn competition. It was excellent playing, and an astonishing, inspiring achievement.

Posted by: Lutoslawski | May 4, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

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