The story of Nobuyuki Tsujii’s success is incredible. By the age of seven he was winning prizes in his native Japan. At ten, he made his concerto debut in Osaka. In his early twenties, he tied for the gold medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Child prodigies are nothing new in classical music, but Nobu, as he is known to his legion of fans – many of whom flocked to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for this International Piano Series recital – was born blind.

Nobuyuki Tsujii © Giorgia Bertazzi
Nobuyuki Tsujii
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Tsujii can read Braille scores, but learns music largely by ear from tapes prepared by assistants, breaking the music into small sections. Watching him perform, one marvels at how he overcomes his handicap. Led to the piano, he has to run his right hand to the end of the keyboard to gauge where to place his hands to start playing. He seems to follow the notes as they float away into the atmosphere. His sense of touch must be heightened, hence much dusting of keys with a handkerchief between numbers.

Like most concertgoers, I prefer to sit “keyboard side” of any concert hall, to be able to observe a pianist’s technique. Here, one was constantly aware – and in awe – of the sheer feat of performing this music without the gift of sight. It’s easy to appreciate why Tsujii’s audiences are so devoted. But if I closed my eyes, as I frequently did during this programme, my ears told a different story.

There is no doubting the technique. The cascading runs in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau glittered and the turbulent storms in Chopin’s Scherzi thundered. But from the Satie Gymnopédies which opened the programme, there was a nagging doubt that Tsujii is not always the most musical of performers. Take the melancholy Gymnopédie no. 1, which looks deceptively simple on paper. The left hand rocked gently enough, but the right hand, where the spare melody meanders in single notes, lacked either legato or a sense of line; the notes were merely punched out without any feeling that they knew where they were going.

Admittedly, Tsujii was up against a Steinway that often sounded bright and brittle in a French first half heavily reliant upon the instrument’s upper register. The Mouvement finale to the set of Images was hammered with industrial precision, while Ravel’s Sonatine was played with metrical care but a level of emotional detachment. Only in the middle number of Debussy’s Images – the Hommage à Rameau – did Tsujii get to draw more expansive colours in an impressive, stately Sarabande.

After the interval, the four Chopin Scherzi suited him better. Scherzo seems a misnomer – there’s not really much to laugh about in this quartet. “Wild phantasmagoria” seems closer to the mark and Tsujii embraced that wildness, although much of it was loud surface clatter. He was generally stronger in the more introspective central sections, although I longed for him to linger over phrases just a little more.

A speedy Clair de lune encore lacked luminosity, but Chopin’s “Tristesse” Étude was very nicely shaped. Between them, Kapustin’s jazzy Concert Etude no. 1 gave the fans what they wanted: piano fireworks.

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