Maria Callas once said in an interview that the basis of her art was diligence in reading the score, that everything was there on the printed page. You could not say the same thing about Chopin, where the score gives the notes, but the impact of the music lies in the shaping of the dynamic and rhythmic contours of the music. Even in a one or two minute piece, the artist must make dozens or hundreds of decisions to create the emotional effect: whether to hold back a rubato or push on, which notes in a phrase are to be emphasised and which are to be smoothed out, how and when to change pace.

© David Karlin
© David Karlin

In order to be able to make such decisions in the first place, the pianist also needs rock solid technique. In the second of two full length all-Chopin recitals at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall last night, Nobuyuki Tsujii – “Nobu” to his legions of adoring fans – certainly demonstrated that, especially in navigating the treacherous waters of the full set of Études, Op.10. Even in Chopin’s toughest runs of rippling semiquavers or complex decorations, smoothness and accuracy were maintained immaculately – my only complaint was of an occasional buzz when lifting fingers off keys at the end of a phrase. Suntory Hall's comfort, elegant surroundings and clean acoustic made a perfect environment in which to hear the clarity of his playing.

As regards those thousands of artistic decisions, however, the first half of the concert (waltzes and études) was a somewhat mixed affair, whereas the second half (the Four Ballades) was very successful.

The waltzes played were the Op.34 set: two brilliant, rapid fire, major key pieces surrounding a thoughtful A minor. The A minor waltz came out well, the slow sections delicately phrased and contrasting nicely with appropriately faster passages. The opening A flat major waltz, however, was disappointing: it was played as a showpiece at break-neck speed, with little rubato, little variation and lacking in space for the music to breathe. The slow section and the coda were better, but my overwhelming impression was of an over-hurried performance lacking in dynamic variation. The F major no. 3 fared better, because the music is more suited to this kind of showpiece treatment, but these are pieces where the best performances carry me away in the lilt of the dance, which was signally not the case here.

The pattern persisted in the Twelve études, Op.10. The slower études were by far the more successful: Nobu achieved true cantabile in the “Tristesse” no. 3 and the “Lament” no. 6, where he was able to develop the phrasing in the course of the piece. All the faster pieces impressed technically, with good timbre but most left me wanting a sense of nuance. The arpeggiated no. 11 was perhaps the most successful, with a nice feeling of waves washing over each other, with the chromatic no. 2 also working well. But the fast pieces felt too single-paced, too rushed and, quite simply, too loud.

But after the interval, Nobu seemed like a different pianist. The Four Ballades are longer pieces, and Nobu was able to use that longer time to build a framework in which to vary both dynamic range and pace. The Ballade no. 1 in G minor is all about changes of pace as Chopin meanders away from the main theme and key before returning to it, often in unexpected ways, and Nobu executed these quite superbly, maintaining wonderful legato in the tricky closing section.

Each of the four pieces was given a more thoughtful, nuanced reading than anything that we had seen in the first half of the concert, with the best left until last: in the F minor no. 4, Nobu produced a wonderful opening andante, followed by a compelling reading of the section in which Chopin thickens the textures. Nobu’s shaping of phrases worked in a thoroughly satisfying manner. It was all particularly effective as we approached the end, as Chopin teases the listener’s sense of where the home key is before unleashing the final fireworks.

***11