There are not many classical musicians on the international circuit who could achieve the ‘legend’ status; whose concerts would be attended by adoring fans rushing to the stage at the conclusion of the recital, who would be referred to by a nickname, suggesting an ongoing relationship and familiarity with their fans. It does help to get to that level of fame if you win the Van Cliburn Competition (one of the most famous but also, most taxing piano competitions in the world) at the age of 21. If that phenomenal accomplishment is done by a young man who was born blind, it further adds to his renown.

Nobuyuki Tsujii © Yuji Hori
Nobuyuki Tsujii
© Yuji Hori

Nobuyuki Tsujii's recital took place in the City Recital Hall, Sydney, with even the standing places being sold out. He was led to the piano before every piece and away from it afterwards. Before starting to play, he touched parts of the keyboard to have a feel for the position of the notes. One could see that he could not use his eyes, but there was no evidence of his performance suffering in any way from this.

The programme was safely traditional and chronologically organised, starting with the Concerto after the Italian taste, or more commonly known, the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 by Johann Sebastian Bach, one of only a handful of compositions that was published in Bach’s lifetime. It was a steady and clean performance without much rubato or variation in tone or articulation within the three movements. I enjoyed the slow middle movement’s lonely soliloquy the most, and would have enjoyed it probably even more at a more consistently subdued, intimate volume.

The Sonata in B flat major, K570 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fortunately revealed considerably more detail about how the artist wanted to form this beautiful opus. Tsujii’s control over the keyboard is truly impressive and he is capable of a broad range of colours and volumes. He used these colours judiciously, even if the crispness of his louder dynamics felt somewhat overdone in a Mozart sonata.

Of the two popular sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven that followed after the interval, the Sonata, quasi una fantasia in C sharp minor, Op.27 no. 2 began with a tempo quite a bit faster than what most would identify with the character of the “Moonlight” Sonata, nonetheless, it was still an atmospheric reading. One of the amazing aspects of Tsujii’s artistic life is that, despite the fact that he is unable to read music in the conventional sense, he learns pieces by acute listening (which in his case does certainly not mean subservient copying) instead of reading, and yet he is capable of understanding the myriad of intricacies written – in this case – in a Beethoven score. Tsujii’s accurate rendering of musical instructions he is unable to read, his seemingly self-evident and unpretentious method to overcome his disability is a testament to his talent, hard work and perseverance.

He played the Op.57 Sonata in F minor, “Appassionata” with the same precise reading of the score, however, as the concert progressed, I increasingly missed an individual view, a unique interpretation of these compositions. The highly polished artistic similarity in the dynamic shading and the nuances of articulation within and between these compositions left me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The performance of the Appassionata demonstrated this point more than once. In this work, there are many occasions when individual notes or short phrases have to be repeated several times; the volume and character of these repetitions remained invariably the same, rather than expressing artistic progress, leading towards the next musical summit.

I was also wondering why an artist of Tsujii’s calibre did not distinguish more between the styles he used when performing the works of three different composers. After all, these works were conceived for significantly dissimilar keyboard instruments and this alone should have suggested subtle but discernible musical modifications. Beethoven even turned to a new piano, made by Érard (which, for example, had four pedals, whereas his earlier instrument had none), after composing the Moonlight Sonata but before writing the Appassionata.

However, the powerful sound of the Steinway on stage for this concert was most useful during the encores. The performances of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude or another masterful “study”, Liszt’s La Campanella, brought the house down with their freshness, energy and impeccable execution.