Nobuyuki Tsujii Thread

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Nobuyuki Tsujii Thread

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The blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii has wasted no time since winning gold at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition at the age of 21. In the last five years, he has released a debut album, a Liszt album, a Mussorgsky album, the Tchaikovsky 1st, the Rach 2nd, a Carnegie Hall DVD, a White Nights DVD with Valery Gergiev (I believe the Tchaik 1st recording is from this performance), as well as the material from his Cliburn Competition performances. Nobu is a superstar in his native country, and at the still young age of 26 he has his entire career ahead of him.


It makes sense to take a moment to really understand what it means to be a blind classical pianist. The first, obvious handicap is not being able to see the keys. Of course many sighted pianists are able to play without looking, but when you consider the difficulty of the standard piano repertoire, large portions of which Nobu has at his command, it becomes more than a small thing. More impressively, being blind from birth means Nobu has never had the advantage of sheet music. In the “Touching the Sound” documentary, he explains that he first learned pieces using a form of Braille notation. But it took too long to learn pieces this way, so Nobu’s instructor began recording the right and left hand parts separately on audio tape. Nobu listens to the tapes, learns the parts, and then puts them together. So, essentially, Nobu has learned everything he plays—entire concertos, the Hammerklavier sonata—by ear. Finally, it is worth pointing out that not only does Nobu learn everything by ear, but he must remember it that way too. He cannot easily carry around with him the compact visual score of a given concerto and refer to it at his convenience. He must have ways of jogging his memory—his repertoire is too large—but it should be noted that it is a real feat for a blind person to compete and perform as a classical pianist on an equal level with the sighted.

The best thing that can be said about Nobu as a pianist, I think, is that he is not trying to reinvent the instrument. His approach could almost be described as middle twentieth-century: uncomplicated by mass culture, deeply faithful, humanistic. He is an un-cynical pianist who generally plays as if trying to show the audience something in the music, without the distraction of obsessive technical point-scoring, self-conscious novelty, or false sophistication. When you get past the fact of his blindness, what you discover is a pianist of large gestures. His playing is almost unbelievably fluid in places, yet you get the sense that for him no single passage or turn of phrase eclipses the whole. With Nobu you don’t hear notes, you hear great silent vistas of a common feeling, of hardship and overcoming, of the joy of accepting limitation, and maybe a little of the “color” of the wind.


Touching the Sound

Touching the Sound follows Nobu in his post-Cliburn glow as he travels to various cities in the US and Japan to give concerts, all the while providing his new fan base with an extremely well-documented portrait of his childhood and development as a pianist. His mother, personal manager, and piano teacher are the most prominent voices in the film. Any time any of them recount a story about Nobu’s early life, it seems there is actual video footage to back up the claim. Nobu had a toy piano as a toddler, and learned to play back songs that his mother sang on it by himself. His favorite CD was a recording of Chopin’s Polonaise No. 6 by Stanislav Bunin (Moscow, won Chopin competition in ’85, lives in Japan). When the original CD began to skip from use, his mother bought a new CD by Bunin of the same polonaise, but a later recording. Nobu would twist his body from side to side while clapping or waving his hands when his mother played the earlier recording; when she played the new one, he hurled his body to the floor face down in disgust. When she went back to the earlier recording, he began dancing again. He was two years old.

When he was five, he and his mother walked past an automatic piano in a shopping mall. He sat down and played some pieces, and a crowd gathered and applauded. His mother says that this is the moment she saw “where Nobu’s happiness would come from.” In the first grade, he entered a local piano competition as the youngest contestant and won first prize. His mother says she didn’t believe he won first until they handed him the trophy. It appears that there is at least one other competition he won when he was a little older, based on the footage. In one of these early clips, he plays the Sibelius piece “The Spruce Tree,” which was made famous by the Japanese Scandinavian specialist Izumi Tateno.

After a short segment of Nobu at the Cliburn Competition fielding questions from a group of what I assume were young American piano students, the documentary looks back at Nobu’s earlier attempt to take on the competition circuit at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw when he was 17. He apparently was accepted into the competition based on his audition but did not advance out of the early rounds. His reaction when his mother reads his name from the list of accepted contestants is one of genuine surprise and delight; his reaction to not advancing is an honest but blameless disappointment. IMO, Nobu’s style of playing is not suited to the Chopin Competition, where there seems to be an emphasis on precision, detail, and intimacy. Nobu is an interpreter of scale and distance; his playing is not imprecise, but the Chopin jury was not going find in him the kind of delicate miniaturization they tend to favor.

The film progresses from the Cliburn competition to a tour of what looks like the East Coast and Nobu’s first performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. When not playing the piano, Nobu is just a tourist like any other, wandering down streets to his next destination, sampling the local cuisine, trying to experience new things. Nobu becomes very nervous backstage before his Carnegie Hall debut, breathing heavily and drawing concerned glances from the crew. Finally, his manager explains, he pulled his manager’s arm and demanded to be led to the stage. There are snippets of something by Liszt, Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, and the finale from Pictures at an Exhibition. Once Nobu is seated at the keyboard the nervousness disappears and he is lost in his own world. He does not so much play for the audience as he plays for himself while the audience listens. He is showered with applause, of course, and breaks into tears backstage before his first curtain call.

For an encore, Nobu performs a song he composed for the victims of the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami, and the final part of the documentary follows Nobu as he returns to Japan and tours the most severely hit areas while playing concerts and performing with a children’s choir there. They visit some temporary shops—long trailer-like buildings with built-in garage doors and wares displayed sporadically on the storefronts and on tables set outside—and have a conversation with some shopkeepers. At one point, they visit a tree on top of a hill in one town that has become a makeshift shrine and place an offering. They explain that the only people to survive the Tsunami in that area were people who climbed to the top of this tree.

In 1842, Charles Dickens published a book based on a recent tour of the US called American Notes. One section is devoted to a deaf and blind woman named Laura Bridgman, who became the first American child to receive an education using tactile sign language, 50 years before Helen Keller (Keller’s mother sought out Bridgman’s institute after reading Dickens’ book). Dickens was probably paraphrasing pamphlets issued by the institute, but he recounts that Bridgman learned how to tactile-sign very quickly and was able to judge the intelligence of other students at the institute. Bridgman was quick to dismiss other students whom she deemed intellectually inferior. Watching Nobu in this documentary, you get a little bit of the same feeling—that, despite being blind from birth, Nobu is able to judge the intellectual capacities of the people around him quite effectively and expresses it in his own way. Early in the documentary, he is shown kneeling in the grass as a child, moving his fingers over the features of a dandelion. “It is beautiful,” he says. Later, on his East Coast tour, he is in a restaurant with his personal manager and inspects the live lobster they have ordered for dinner in the same way. “Lobster, you are alive,” he says running his fingertips over the squirming carapace. “Excuse us, we are going to eat you now.” In the car he jokes about people mistaking his personal manager as his father. “Good father,” he says, as he begins to tickle his personal manager’s feet. In one of the first interviews in the documentary, he tells how his mother used to try to explain colors to him using food. Red for apples, yellow for bananas, etc. One day he asked his mother, “What is the color of the wind?” His mother became very confused. The way he tells the story, you get the sense that the confusion was intentional.


This is one of two CDs of Nobu's Cliburn performances that I have. This one includes Chopin's Concerto No. 1, Berceuse, and the twelve OP. 10 Etudes. (The other disc includes only the first six of the etudes.) His Concerto No. 1 is technically solid, very natural, and tasteful. Nobu does not overuse rubato, which is saying something in this repertoire. He picks his moments to go soft, to hold a note, to bend a phrase, but these moments don't seem "programmed" the way they often do in Chopin's concertos but rather flow freely from his understanding of and feeling for the work as a whole. IMO the outer movements are better than the famous slow movement, but the slow movement is not bad. Somehow I get the sense that Nobu is just not inclined towards meloncholic states; he is too good-natured, too interested in the vast universe around him to dwell too severely on his own emotions. Also, as a side note, the orchestra is a little too agressive here for my taste.

Nobu's Op. 10 Etudes are really superlative. The fact that he plays not one Etude but twelve, that this is a live recording from a major competition with no second takes, and that he was only 21 at the time boggles the mind. They are solid, well-informed, technically proficient, interpretively mature--everything you could possibly want. His Op. 10 No. 1 comes across like a wall of sound to rival Pollini's groundbreaking recording of the same work, and the fingerwork does not let up throughout the entirety of the opus. He is fluttering, sweeping, driving, soaring, flaring one after the other. The only real weak spot is the "stormy" section of the Tristesse--it is a contrasting passage, but Nobu crashes into it with a little too much force. His Revolutionary is the fastest I know of. The main theme in the right hand ends up compressing into more of a coherent line than in most interpretations.

The Berceuse is a beautiful jewel box of sparkling light. In Nobu's hands it becomes more than a right hand showpiece. He brings out a certain joyful whimsicality in the work. You end up listening to the entire piece, not just the runs . . .

This second disc from the Cliburn Competition includes the first six only of Nobu's Op. 10 Chopin etudes, the Hammerklavier Sonata, La Campanella, and the contemporary work Improvisation and Fugue by John Musto.

Nobu's Hammerklavier is a major achievement. Nobu's live performance here puts to shame many glossy studio recordings I have heard of this work. I haven't pulled out the sheet music, but I believe Nobu eliminates some of the repeats in the first movement, which may have been required by the time constraints of the competition, but also leads me to think Nobu's model is Glenn Gould's version, which is my all-time favorite and really deserves much more attention than it has received. The Hammerklavier is a work perfectly suited to Nobu's temperament as a pianist: ponderously large, a self-contained universe requiring both physical power and cosmic poetry. Nobu "gets" the punchy rhythmic nature of the first movement; he digs in and pulls back in the right places. He is very much trying to give the audience a "Hammerklavier," not a reinterpretation of a Hammerklavier. His third movement is well-paced, with good attention to detail and structure, as if he were playing it from a familiar armchair worn to the shape of his body. So many pianists lose focus in this movement or snowball their tempo; Nobu lets it breathe. It almost feels like the movement is a gigantic spaceship slowly drifting away from your vantage point, until you can't remember how it became half the size. The fugue is impeccable. In fact, Nobu ends the sonata so strongly I almost feel sorry for the piano.

It is a pity that the "Surprise in Texas" documentary focused so much on Nobu's performance of La Campanella. I felt it was his weakest, and really unless you are going to do something earth-shattering with it I feel young pianists should be steered away from some of these overplayed pieces. The Musto composition and performance, however, is extremely good. The Improvisation is a deconstructed jazz-melody with dissonant harmony that transitions to progressively faster-tempoed re-castings of the main theme, ending with a recapitulation of the initial material. The Fugue is developed from some suitably absurd interior figure from the Improvisation and contains probably the same mixture of actual line-writing and passage-writing as the fugue from the Hammerklavier. Nobu's performance is really flawless. It is customary for a piano competition to require one performance of some choice of contemporary works by composers from the country that is hosting the competition. Usually, the works are presented to the contestents just months before the competition begins, giving them limited time to learn and master what, in this case, is not an insignificant chunk of music. This performance is the icing on the cake of Nobu's Hammerklavier and Op. 10 Etudes; if nothing else, it demonstrates that there is no handicap here to speak of.

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