“My goal is to play as long as possible and as many pieces as possible” reflects pianist Atsushi Imada during a recent Zoom conversation, calling in from his hometown of Kakegawa, Japan. With several prizes from major piano competitions to his name – most recently, capturing the 4th prize at the 2018 Hamamatsu International Piano Competition – and the release of his debut CD recording imminent, Imada finds himself at an exciting point in his career, in continued pursuit of that noble goal.

Atsushi Imada
© Atsushi Imada

Imada showed promise at the piano from early age, and by his teenage years, following a move to Tokyo at age 15, he knew his calling was to be a professional pianist. The bustling cultural life of Tokyo turned out to be something of an awakening. “I grew up in the countryside of Japan, and no one in my family is a musician,” he reminisces, “so my knowledge of classical music was very limited. When I moved to Tokyo, almost every day I went to the record store after school and bought so many CDs. I really loved the music.” He would go on to make his concerto debut at age 16.

Formative studies followed in London at the Royal College of Music with noted pianist Dmitri Alexeev. When asked about memorable lessons learned from his former teacher, Imada noted that “he showed me not just how to play but how to produce a good sound. He always talked about sound quality: his sound is a very Russian-like, singing-like tone.” It was his time with Alexeev that also further encouraged his affinity for the Romantic repertoire. His studies subsequently took him to Leipzig where he was a pupil of Gerald Fauth. “I wanted to study more classical and Baroque music” he explains, “so I decided to study with a Bach specialist, and Fauth had a completely different way of teaching which was really interesting: he was very strict about what’s literally in the score.” Leipzig proved to be a choice location to be immersed in that repertoire; Imada made a point to mention that he lived in an apartment ten minutes away from the Thomaskirche, where Bach himself served as Kapellmeister.

After returning to Japan, Imada was encouraged by his teachers there to compete in the Hamamatsu Competition – a venue just a short distance from his hometown. The pianist spoke fondly of his time as a contestant: “The people were very warm and kind, and it was a really good experience to play in Hamamatsu again.” Imada also points out that Yamaha is headquartered in Hamamatsu, and moreover, they maintain a factory where most of their pianos are produced in his native Kakegawa. These are instruments which he takes a particular liking towards, citing the high quality from the very low to the very high register, and their “crystal-like sound.”

Recording his first album was a memorable moment for Imada. The forthcoming disc will be devoted to two major works of Schumann, namely the Piano Sonata no. 1 and the Symphonic Etudes. It’s a logical coupling – both works were written during the same few years, and Imada explains that while both are based on traditionally strict forms (sonata and variations), they nonetheless exude a certain freestyle, fantastical quality. The Symphonic Etudes in particular have been in his repertoire for quite some time, as he studied the work with Alexeev (who has also recorded it). Imada expresses a deep attachment to Schumann, and envisages this being the first instalment of a much larger project to record all of Schumann’s piano works. “Schumann is one of my favourite composers,” he says, “and I feel very close to him because his music is very personal.”

On his approach to making a studio recording, Imada muses that “with no audience it was absolutely different from a concert. I spent three days to record two pieces.” Nonetheless, he found the process itself to be inherently familiar as it drew parallels to the way he practices. He detailed recording the works piecemeal in increments of three pages or so. “It was very close to what I’m practicing…creating music little by little, and not moving on until I’m convinced.”

“I like everything!” said this musical omnivore when questioned about his preferred repertoire, "so it’s very difficult to choose just one composer. But I usually choose the Romantic which is the most interesting period for me. And also Russian music since I studied with Alexeev, and I also studied with a Russian teacher in Japan. I get some kind of feeling from the Russian composers like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin. Compared to Russian music, I rarely choose French music in my repertoire... I felt there was a barrier or wall between the piece and I, but I now think it would be very good to study some French music. And of course I try to choose one piece of Bach in every concert.” While Imada’s comment about the challenges of the French repertoire offers some thoughtful self-reflection, I nonetheless found his Hamamatsu Competition recording of Ravel’s Scarbo to be well worth a listen! I was also curious to know what works he hasn’t studied yet that he’s keen to learn, and he highlighted Tchaikovsky’s Seasons and Schumann’s Humoreske.

Atsushi Imada

The global pandemic has been catastrophic to concert life. “I have a lot of time,” Imada understandably remarks, but he’s taken advantage of that newfound time to re-ignite his interest in listening to past generations of pianists, hearkening back to his days dutifully building up a music library as a young student in Tokyo. “I listen to the music, especially old recordings. And I also listen to the CDs that I often listened to when I was high school and haven't listened to for a long time. I found it to be completely different from when I was listening 10 years ago. Now, I found so many things, and so many more details of the pieces.”

As far as particular pianistic heroes, Imada singles out Gilels and Michelangeli. “Gilels is maybe my favourite pianist. I like his Beethoven, his Russian music, and his Chopin. His music is very poetic: of course he has a very solid sound, but at the same time very elegant. His music talks to me when I listen to it.

“I recently fell in love with a performance of Michelangeli. At one point, I found his music very cold, like there was a distance between performer and listener, but I don’t find that anymore. His music is very organized, but expresses everything in its way…and it’s really wonderful what he does.” A keen sense of tradition, gained by availing oneself to the troves of recordings available undoubtedly guides Imada’s own playing. As a counterpoint, he explains that he intentionally stops listening to recordings some weeks prior to learning a new work to allow himself the time and space to forge a fresh and personal interpretation. The final product is thus perhaps an amalgamation of novel ideas and time-honoured tradition.

Imada is eager to return to the concert hall, and already has several performances booked in the not very distant future, a sure sign of light at the end of the tunnel. When assembling a recital program, he notes that he likes to contrast different genres while also illustrating various connections, for instance, how Schumann was influenced by Bach and Beethoven. Looking even further afield, he reflects that “many people have said that your playing in your fifties is different than in your twenties – so I’m very curious what my performances are going to be when I’m in my fifties or even sixties and seventies.” It’s a sentiment that I suspect is shared by many of us in the audience, excited to witness Imada’s continued blossoming as an artist.


With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

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