Thursday, 27 June 2013

NOBU-LITY / NOBUYUKI TSUJII Piano Recital / Review

Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday (25 June 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 June 2013 with the title "Believe your ears". 

When the young blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii was awarded joint First Prize at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, public opinion was divided and polarised. Legions of new fans were touched by his courage and musicality, but there were nay-sayers who felt he was a student-level player who got lucky with the sympathy vote.

Whatever one’s view, only a live recital - as opposed to Internet webcast - would be a true arbiter of his abilities. In that respect, Tsujii did not disappoint. There were however factors that militated against his success. He needed help to get to the piano stool. There was fidgeting before he began, and then that constant bobbing and nodding of his head as he performed, uncoordinated with the rhythm of the music.

By choosing a piano voicing that favoured a dry timbre and brightness over mellowness, there were to be little room for error, especially when he used the sustaining pedal minimally. This was unusual for the music for Debussy which thrives on generous but judicious pedalling and much subtlety. Thus the Two Arabesques sounded cut and dried, but the crispness had a better effect for the dances in the Suite Bergamasque.

Only in the familiar Clair de lune did he apply a sheen of resonance that just about worked. As the pieces got more complicated, as in the three pieces of Estampes (Imprints), the playing got better. There was nary a smudged texture in the Orient-influenced Pagodas, while the Spanish rhythms of Evenings in Granada were superbly judged, with its guitar-like interludes a pleasant diversion.

In the fluid brilliance of Gardens in the Rain and L’Isle Joyeuse (The Joyous Isle), he brought out a startling clarity that seemed at odds with the impressionist intent usually practised. The inexorably build-up to the latter’s climax was one of the evening’s highlights.

The audience’s familiarity of Chopin proved no hindrance, as he made each piece sound freshly turned, beginning with the scintillating Grand Waltz in B flat major (Op.18).  The Second Scherzo in B flat minor (Op.31), with accident-prone leaps on both hands that terrify even the sighted, was accomplished with a conjuror’s sleight of hand. The large screen behind the piano with projections of his hands does not lie.

He closed the recital proper with two Polonaises in A flat major, the elusive Polonaise-Fantasy (Op.61) coming through with much nobility, and seldom as the “Heroic” Polonaise (Op.53) been launched with such fearsome disregard for safety. The repeated left hand octave passage in the latter was stunning in its steadiness and as one might have guessed, did not put a finger wrong.

The sold-out house was rewarded with five encores, including a short greeting of thanks in English and a heartfelt performance of his own elegy in memory to the victims of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake-tsunami tragedy. As a goodwill ambassador for music or any other cause, Tsujii has few equals.   

Nobu meets with the Japanese ambassador to Singapore Mr Yoichi Suzuki and Mrs Suzuki.

Young fans of Nobu have no better role model to emulate.  

Members of the Johore Bahru Nobu Fan Club (Malaysia) came in full force to attend the concert, everyone wearing a Nobuyuki Tsujii Asian Tour tee-shirt.


M. L. Liu said...

Dr. Chang Tou Liang,

I had looked forward to this review, having read generous words on this blog about Nobuyuki Tsujii. The text of this piece was sent to me by a friend hours before it was posted here.

I was frankly alarmed by the negative tone that the review begins with, but glad that it ends on a positive note.

I can accept that you do not care for some of Nobu's Debussy playing. But why must you dredge up the sour grapes on Nobu's Cliburn victory 4 years ago? And what's with the "mitigating factors" of Nobu's need to be helped to the piano and his unusual mannerisms on stage due to his blindness?

Nobu is what he is. Part of his charm is that he is totally genuine.

As an ardent fan of Nobu, I have read just about every review on his performances, and I have a theory.

There are those who embrace him with their hearts, and then there are those who judge him with their heads. The former are moved by the sight of Nobu being led to the piano; the latter disapprove, possibly because it offends their sense of the esthetics of pianist performances.

Call it sympathy, or empathy, but Nobu and his music seize the hearts of some of us like no other pianists, no matter how brilliant or glamorous they may be.

But please allow me to end this note with thanking you for you enthusiasm for piano music, and for appreciating Nobu --in your way.

rebecca said...

His own composition, 3rd encore!

rebecca said...

His own composition, 3rd encore!

Chang Tou Liang said...

Please don't get me wrong. I'm a big Nobu fan too. He's totally genuine and I've always felt this way since the moment I heard him play his first note at the 2009 Cliburn via the Internet. The CDs and DVD were just as impressive, but one really needs to experience him in person at a "live" concert to truly realise the miracle that he is. It does not matter if I didn't always love his Debussy, but I'm just grateful to get that chance to witness his artistry.

Chang Tou Liang said...

Nobu's five encores were:

1. LISZT La Campanella
2. TSUJII Elegy for the 2011 tsunami victims
3. CHOPIN √Čtude, Op.10 No.12 "Revolutionary"
4. CHOPIN Nocturne, Op.27 No.2
5. LISZT Rigoletto Paraphrase