I would like to add one footnote. I cannot confidently say yes to the question whether the moderate rubato with less deformation, which is found in Tsujii's and Amachi's music, is valuable by itself. I think the moderate rubato with less deformation is not enough to make music tasty and attractive.
Excellence of Tsujii's and Amachi's music is found in their harmonious sounds and exquisite nuances which are understated but capture people's hearts. Paradoxically, attractive sounds and nuances are needed for the music with moderate rubato with less deformation. In other words, moderate rubato with less deformation maximizes the beauty of the attractive sounds and nuances.
Charm of the sound itself, in Amachi's case, comes from her voice quality and vocalism. Her voice can sound musically and sweetly even without accompaniment. And in case with accompaniment, her voice harmonizes especially with the sounds of strings and woodwinds. I sometimes feel her songs not to be a voice with accompaniments, but to be an ensemble of voice, that is one of the instrument, and accompanied instruments. I guess that the reason is that her voice resonates well with her body like Stradivarius, and her voice sequences, which consist of portamento, voice growth and vibrato, have the similar phrasing of strings and woodwinds. When she manages this kind of voice sequences, we can easily understand that excessively-dramatic deformation detracts its excellence.
In Tsujii's case, charm of his sound comes not only from his favorite piano and tuning, but also from the way he hits the notes. Horowitz could highlight the melody line that he thought the most charming among the complicated sound clusters. He could make the selected sounds sing throughout the hall, and make the other sounds waft like delicate flavor or faint background that surrounds the lead character. He could make the sound of right hand stand out against that of left hand. Furthermore, he could make one sound of right hand (by little finger or other one finger) stand out against the other sounds of right and left hand. This was particularly effective in the complicated music with a pile of sounds like Schumann's, Scriabin's and Rachmaninoff's. This means not only the excellence of his technique, but also his favorable attitude to make such clear sound. Almost half of the reason that I like his music is in this viewpoint. And Tsujii can do almost the same way. I would say, nowadays, he has the best taste and technique in this viewpoint. His beautiful sounds, that is often pointed out, depend on this characteristic, along with his excellent touches to each note. Naturally, the reason that I recognized him as a pianist who succeeds Horowitz was that I found this characteristic in many phrases of his performances.
With respect to nuances, Amachi uses portamento, choking (bending in guitar technique), short appoggiatura and rubato in her singing. And they express the heart of herself. Tsujii uses rubatos and the change of sound volume and quality to make exquisite nuances. But it must be remembered that his rhythm is quite excellent.
I sometimes feel unattractive with the rhythms in key phrases that are played by mechanically excellent pianists. I think the excellence of rhythm appears in how to play dotted notes. I should not say "excellence" but "preference".
When we use a dotted note, the sound of one in length is divided into two sounds with the ratio of 0.75:0.25, according to the musical score rule. But if you play as it is, it will be a little dull. It should be played with the ratio of 0.8:0.2, or 0.85:0.15 for crisp rhythm. I sometimes hear that some pianists play in an opposite way. This type of pianist tends to play other rhythm dully. It means, for example, dull staccato and dull rubato, etc.
I have read a book that introduced Horowitz. It was written that Horowitz has "excellent rhythm", and introduced his Pathetic Sonata for example. I was absolutely enchanted by his rhythm in it. This is a beginning part of the first movement of Beethoven's Pathetic Sonata.
(The full playing is here.) I do not discuss here whether this performance is suitable for Beethoven or not. At least, you can find the "excellent rhythm" in it.
This may be a little too extreme, but I can find almost the same excellence of rhythm in Tsujii's music. Such sense of rhythm is found not only in the rhythmic finale, but also in slow rubatos and singing of melodies. I think excellent rhythm is necessary for charming rubatos and nuances. Because a rubato is the fluctuation of tempo, fine rhythm fluctuations determine the charming rubatos. And nuances consist not only of the produce of sound, the change of pitch and articulation, but also of the timing of phrase start and sound change. As I admired Amachi's rhythm in the previous article, excellent rhythm is involved in the elegant, natural, resonate nuances.
People who knows Horowitz think that Tsujii is a quite different type of pianist. But surprisingly, I feel some common fascinations from each other. And I think they relate to Amachi's in the basics, too.
Please let me talk about Nobuyuki Tsujii, the most fascinating pianist for me today. He has been featured on television as a blind pianist. I am a little bored with some parts of these shows. But I feel I have found it at long last.
Vladimir Horowitz was my idol. I listened to his two Japan tours in spite of the extraordinarily high entrance fee.
My second favorite is Sviatoslav Richter. The only active pianist whom I hoped to hear in concert was Arcadi Volodos. They were invaluable pianists who helped me to discern classical piano music. I will leave off discussing further about these pianists, so as to keep this piece from becoming too long.
I was fascinated with Horowitz in the late 1970s, in my high school age, when Mari Amachi (one of the most famous Japanese singer in 1970s and the heroine of this blog site) appeared on TV less frequently and I lost attention. After that, somewhere down the line, I hoped to find another idol to succeed Horowitz. It has almost been twenty years since the last sleep of Horowitz in 1989. I was eager to find pianists who really enchant me and who will help me to develop the interest in piano music that Horowitz had instilled in me.
However, it was a lot of disappointment. I like Lipatti, Rubinstein and Kempff modestly. But they were far from Horowitz. I have listened to competition winners (including second-prize winners): Ashkenazy,Pollini, Argerich, Zimerman, Dang Thai Son, Bunin, etc. I knew child prodigy, Sgouros, Kissin, and Hamelin, Lang Lang, etc. Of course I sometimes felt their performances were great. But they couldn't be my idol, someone whose music I would be eager to listen wherever and whenever. Before long, I almost gave up the search because my ears had listened to the unique sound of Horowitz so much that I could not accept those of other pianists.
At last, there was the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. Because of my past experiences, I did not pay very much attention to this competition. Even when I heard about the victory of a blind pianist, I felt it's only a heartwarming story. But when listened to the performances of Nobuyuki Tsujii on the competition's website as well as his past performances on YouTube, I became heartily fascinated with his music. We can still watch and listen to his performances in the competition at the website . His style seems very far from Horowitz's -- the difference is as great as that between Mari Amachi and Hibari Misora (both are famous Japanese singer), but it really charms me.
To be honest, not all of his performances satisfy me. It is the same with Horowitz. Some pieces seem to me less proficient. But I think the following three pieces at least are superior, even compared with any pianists listed above. They are really irreplaceable. Fortunately or unfortunately, Horowitz didn't leave recordings of these pieces.
The first piece is Chopin's etude Op.10-1, played at 15 years old on Hiroshi Kume's TV news program.
The recording is a little noisy, but its remarkableness can be heard clearly. It was said in the old days that there was a poem in the scales of Horowitz. This is exactly like that. Tsujii did not play it in a conspicuously raging way like most prodigy pianists. Because his physical ability was still under development, the tempo is rather slow, by competition standard. Actually, he played it faster in the Cliburn Competition. I could feel that his touches are very stable and firm. It means that he has a steady attitude for the future, and has been advised by excellent coaching. It also indicates that he can also surely become superior compared with other prodigies of the day.
Most of all, the expressions from around the seventh up-down scale are extremely remarkable. I have no time to consider the meaning or scene of this music. Instead they directly shake my mind with fluctuations generated by the pure sound sequences. He doesn't use excessive rubato or exaggerated deformation. The slight rubato, slight dynamics, and slight coloration change make the music so touching. Etudes, especially for this kind of scale etudes, usually need no shows of emotion. But I think such suggestion might be said by person who could not play like this. Even compared with the amazing performance of Pollini -- who gained prominence by Chopin's Etudes, the difference and the magic are obvious to me.
The second piece is Liszt's La Campanella, played at the Cliburn Competition.
I loved this sentimental theme, so I had a chance to listen to the performances of this piece by eleven pianists. But I couldn't be satisfied at all. Their fantastic speed and brilliant jumps could only tickle my taste for piano acrobatics. This performance by Tsujii attained what I had expected for this piece for so long. In the face of torturous jumps and trills, he easily overcame them and they came together beautifully in a fluid stream of music. More over, each pearl of tone springs from the flowing music stream to strike my heart. As it was a live performance, there were some wrong notes struck, but it moves me to tears nevertheless. I think it is the best performance ever.
Other pianists may play those two pieces successfully by perfecting the technique mechanically. Tsujii, instead, not only displays his technique at the highest level, but also adds to it nuances that are so natural, rich and varied that they grab my heart.
The third piece is Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1, also performed at the Cliburn Competition. Let me introduce the famous theme in the 1st movement.
Other pianists would play these fascinating passages more intensely, more sentimentally. I have actually heard these expressions sometimes in other pianists' performances. I, however,very much appreciate Tsujii's exquisitely-chiseled expression with slight but precious rubato, consisting of the subdued but shimmering sounds of the Steinway piano. In playing the melancholic melodies, his balance of the strength in the right and left hands is perfect. His sounds are incredibly beautiful and they directly pierce deep into my heart. Furthermore, his melancholic expression is not so depressing but instead somewhat cheerful, and it contains a hope for salvation. It was a big surprise to me that I felt so fresh and so genuinely moved, when I heard this performance of a familiar melody that I had heard many times before.
Once I have become fascinated with this kind of expression by Tsujii, I feel that any other expression is garble, tarnished by needless conception or exaggeration.
I don't mean his sounds have no nuances. In fact they are full of soothing nuances. The nuances are far from dramatic deformation, but are definitely built upon a good balance between moderate rubato and Chopin's melody itself. As critics and instructors in classical field often say, such balance, instead of dramatic rubato, must maximize the goodness of the piece. Actually it's difficult and rare. But he did it in this performance in the ultimate way.
This sense of beautiful vibrancy fills up all three movements of this piece, with superb rhythm. I appreciate the rhythm and aggressiveness in the finale, too. This is a historical masterpiece. It doesn't seem an exaggeration that at the competition, the judges and members of the orchestra were brought to tears by this performance. I can imagine experts who had heard tremendous performances, as well as beginners for classical piano music, were moved with the vivid impression.
He makes the piano sing and he adds excellent nuances especially to the pieces that are rather difficult to sing. And he maintains moderation and excellent balance, for the pieces which already have a lot of melodious phrases. Both of them are not tasteless nor mawkish, but they bring forth musical and acoustic beauty. Tsujii's way of expression is rather different from Horowitz's. So he rekindled in me a new affection for piano music.
I think his live performances are far better than studio recordings. The other day I watched a recording session of his composition "A Morning in Cortona" on a TV show (the "Takeshi Art-Beat" show - June 8 2011). The music director gave Tsujii suggestions, and he played the piece again and again in an empty hall. I would recommend that he records his performances just once, in a hall full of audiences. Then he will make the best performances of the pieces. I hope that no music directors or professors would try to influence his musical sensibility.
After I wrote so far, I read an interesting consideration that Hikokigumo-san wrote. He describes Mari Amachi played Chopin and Bach with different approaches. Then I became aware that Tsujii's expression, excellent nuances for etude and moderate balance for concerto, is something like Mari's approach, emotions for Bach and simplicity for Chopin. It also reminds me of her rich nuances for optimistic songs and her restrained sentimentalism for pessimistic songs. I think it is common basic characteristic for musical expression. Such "Mari Amachi's aesthetics" is not exclusively for her but should be pursued as one of the ultimate harmonious music style. That is what Tsujii's performances let me realize undoubtedly.
According to Maho's Tweets, a daughter of Mari, Mari Amachi listens to Tsujii's CDs almost every day. And Maho herself heartily loves Tsujii's piano performances. I wonder how they feel to listen to his music.
Meanwhile, Tsujii-san said in an interview that he liked ladies of a good voice. I'm sure he will instantly fall for Mari Amachi's songs.