Given the media attention hyping up young Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, co-winner of the gold medal at Van Cliburn brutally challenging piano competition, the real question has to be: How is the music coming across? Fortunately in this case, we are so far beyond stunts and headline-grabs (Clement, the virtuoso, played his new fiddle piece with his violin held upside down !!! right in the middle of the premiere concert of Beethoven's Violin Concerto.), that we can sit back and relish how this young player just lets go, and really digs into the music he plays. Blind from birth, Tsujii started winning prizes in Japan as early as seven years old. That would tell us something, perhaps, except that the real deal message is how the grown up young man serves the great music he performs, nowadays.
In Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, Tsujii is partnered by the DSO (Berlin) led by Yutaka Sado. The triple threat of DSO, Sado, and Tsujii proves more than a passing phenom, though understandably Japan may be proud of how it recognized and supported Tsujii as something of a child prodigy, not to mention exporting a talent like Sado to, say, the Orchestre de Concerts Lamoureux.
My top choice in this concerto has been Yevgeny Kissin with Gergiev leading the orchestra (LSO). Of course many things in that reading are right, but the pacing and phrasing that Kissin and Gergiev bring together, almost as if one, are so especially suited to the Slavic Soul of this composer that although a great many other deserving players come close, nobody else quite seemed to my ears to have gotten into the recording studio at a moment of (fairly early) peak ripening as Kissin/Gergiev. Now I hear a similar very palpable unity of musical grip and purpose between Tsujii and Sado, channeled through a DSO that sounds tip top in alertness and ensemble. For once, any hints of sogginess or over-ripeness in the Rachmaninoff accompaniment across all three movements are completely lacking. The orchestra and its many different passing soloistic instrumental moments are one lyrical-dramatic musical flow. Then add Tsujii's piano to that tide. Beautiful, folks, just beautiful.
Tsujii has a unique kind of physical interaction with his instrument, too. He both inhabits his piano or lets it occupy and draw him into the physical machine, the outcome being a kind of bear-pawed virtuoso presence that I don't think we have heard on recordings since perhaps, Lazar Berman. Whether because of advances in our recording arts or because of even more careful microphone placement, Tsujii's immense physical touch never turns hard or brittle as sound passes into the master file. Oh, that Berman had been given that last four drops of engineering care, along with having been let into far more concerto recordings that he eventually left us as legacy.
In any case, Tsujii and Sado are so united in their shared sense of the music's flow that you might swear the ghost of the composer must have been hovering about the session, flickering like a miasma line of electric musical connection between pianist and conductor. There is simply not one moment when anything in the piano or the orchestra sounds over-written. Tsujii's technical wizardry is such that he more than surmounts the challenges. Tsujii lets every shifting, kaleidoscopic cascade of Rachmaninoff notes spin off like abundant rainbow spectrum sparks, struck from a single underlying basic beat that is also carrying DSO and Sado forward in the same airy (or striding, muscular) momentum.
This devotion to the music of the second concerto works so well all through! The transition from slow second movement to Allegro Scherzando third movement can grow tweaky and awkward, even with some rather famous pianists accompanied by jet-setting conductors, but here the composer's gear changes are simply inevitable-sounding. Ditto for the uptakes of tempo and breath, only then to be followed more broadly as Rachmaninoff has the concerto's music pulse out in that familiar ebb and flow which nevertheless seeks a further narrative-dramatic direction. For once, all the strands of the music are gathered up and played whole, no unraveling of melody from harmony from rhythm, especially from rhythm as basic pulse. Within this compelling unanimity, neither Sado and the orchestra, nor Tsujii brush by or blur any of the endless detail and busy-ness which Rachmaninoff seems nearly always to have heard as he committed lines, notes, bar-lines to music paper.
Like encores after a concerto reading that has gotten the audience to fall in love, Tsujii serves up three additional solo piano pieces by Franz Liszt. The Liebestraum 3 is just right, not too fast, not to slow, not too sappy, not rushed or heartless. Then the Mephisto Waltz 1 takes off like a fireworks rocket, bursting into shards of color and virtuosity, rather as one imagines Liszt intended to happen.
The all too familiar Lisztian keyboard habits ... like octaves, high-low keyboard extremes, oscillations, roulades, and tremored octaves ... sound ... and oh boy, do these keyboard habits sound ... inevitable! Musical! Articulate! Even the piano imitations of a Hungarian cymbalom in the rhapsody seem neither banal nor bathetic. By the time Tsujii has finished the last piece, Hungarian Rhapsody 2, we are mostly convinced that Tsujii is that blessed and welcome and rare gift, a compleat Liszt virtuoso who reveals these piano pieces as music above all. Tsujii's cadenza in the rhapsody is so idiomatic, by the way, that unless a listener is following the score of the rhapsody as the disc spins, one may assume that Liszt not Tsujii, was the composer.
I hardly could repress an urge to stand up and applaud in my living room at the end of this disc. But I stifled myself by taking some comfort and encouragement from the fact that I had already ordered other Tsujii discs on release, so he would be returning to the home big rig, soon and sooner.
Gee I can't wait to hear more. More solo piano playing. More piano concerto playing. For sure I would get Sado and Tsujii with DSO back into the studio in the hear future, to finish off those Rachmaninoff concertos, one by one by one by one. And just imagine what a marvelous Paganini Rhapsody we would get to charm and dazzle as a culmination of those sessions. Then we could hang toothy and hungering, for the two Liszt piano concertos? Then ... Tchaikovsky, Grieg, ....one wishes Tsujii well and very well and especially well. (My own little nit pickiness? I'll take Tsujii over Lang Lang any day of the week, shhh.) How do you say, Stars? In Japanese?