Japanese pianist captures joy within Beethoven’s sonatas

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) – It has been over 10 years since pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii released his first CD. Having gained his fair share of experiences at home and abroad, the 29-year-old has successfully transcended his reputation as a blind prodigy and matured into one of the country’s foremost talents in the field.

“Compared to before, when I would just play with a lot of impulse, now I’m more composed,” he said. “I think my sounds and expressions have more depth to them.”

Tsujii began taking piano lessons at age four and soon after was being heralded as a child genius. He released his first CD in 2007 and entered the spotlight in June 2009 when he became the first Japanese to win the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He has since enjoyed exceptional popularity for a classical music artiste, with his latest recital tour, which ended this week, selling out long ago.

“I don’t think much about my popularity,” he said shyly. “Personality-wise, I’m rather cheerful and honest, and I feel very happy when I’m playing. Maybe people are looking at these sides of me.”

Indeed, even when he’s playing a piece in a minor key, there’s something about the way he performs that makes people smile. This infectiousness is on full display on his new CD, ‘Beethoven: Pathetique, Moonlight, Appassionata’, released on the avex label and featuring the great composer’s three famous piano sonatas.

Nobuyuki Tsujii. – THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN

Tsujii captures the anguish Beethoven felt in confronting his deafness through fierce chord strokes and torrents of 16th notes, all the while conveying to listeners the joyfulness of music and a strong passion for life through the powerful force flowing through each piece.

“When I’m playing a piece of music, various things pop into my mind, such as the composer’s thoughts, relevant landscapes and the work’s historical background,” he said.

In Beethoven’s music, Tsujii feels the joy that exists within the composer’s pain.

“He overcame the hardship of losing his hearing,” he said. “There’s something in him that hits very close to home for me.”

Tsujii does not use Braille musical scores, instead learning the parts for both hands by heart through listening to a recording of each part and then adding his own interpretation to the music.

He can thus produce subtly nuanced tones as well as pauses with peculiar timing, since he is confronting the composer “face-to-face”, so to speak, without the intermediary of a musical score that some consider an “imperfect medium left by the composer”.

His domestic concert schedule this year includes tours with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, under conductor Vasily Petrenko, in May, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy, in November. Tsujii will travel the entire country with the orchestras, playing piano concertos by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Chopin.

Tsujii has looked up to Ashkenazy, also a famed pianist, since he was a child, when he would listen to the veteran musician’s performances on CD and try to play like him.

“When we performed together, I heard Ashkenazy playing Bach in his dressing room,” he recalled. “That made me realise that I, too, have to keep studying.

“My repertoire is not up to scratch yet. I hope to keep improving, while never forgetting to appreciate (all my fans).”