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< Coming down the home stretch - The Finals, Day One | Main | Finals Day Three: Disappointments >

The Finals, Session Two: Youth will have its Day...

Posted at 2:58 PM on June 5, 2009 by Greg Allen (4 Comments)

This Cliburn Festival entry written by Gregory Allen, Professor of Piano, University of Texas at Austin, exclusively for Performance Today's Fredlines.

I heard Arthur Rubinstein only once live in concert: Houston, spring 1976, during his last tour (at age 89). But last night I swear I heard him again, channeled into the Bass Hall by Nobuyuki Tsujii (age 20), the phenomenon of this competition. In an earlier post I mentioned that I don't think it's a bad thing for an artist to develop his/her interpretive views based on great performers of the past; after all, we don't create art in a vacuum, and there's much truth in tradition. We don't have to slavishly adhere to it, and there's always room for fresh insights, but we should be aware of our roots, and respect them. I often sum up this philosophy with what I thought was a facetious hypothesis: If you can really, truly sound like Rubinstein by listening to recordings, I'm not gonna complain! Well, to my mind, Mr. Tsujii has accomplished something amazingly close to just that. (Of course it's just a facile convenience to say that he emulates Rubinstein to the exclusion of all others; I'm certain that he listens to and assimilates qualities of many wonderful pianists.) But there it is: what I heard in this Chopin E minor Concerto was an elegant old-style performance, a virtual reincarnation of the spirit of an earlier time, delivered without affectation, posturing, prettification or apology. Like I said yesterday, it's a rare achievement to just Get It Right. This one did, and I'm in awe.
(Did I mention his, um, handicap? I didn't? Oh well, never mind...)

For the second time, Haochen Zhang was put in the unenviable position of following Mr. Tsujii, but somehow I doubt that he's susceptible to neurosis or superstition - he's just a brilliant young man on a mission, and it seems to me that his mission has very little to do with competitive one-upsmanship. He showed up at 10 p.m. to play his Mozart D minor, which he did with his customary precision and self-assurance. But what wowed me was his three-dimensional immersion in the emotional drama of the piece. Without ever stepping outside the boundaries of good Mozart style (except in the cadenzas, which were appropriately done in good Beethoven style), he found wonderfully varied shapes, articulations and sonorities - which were matched with striking vitality by Maestro Conlon and the orchestra - adding up to one of the most compelling journeys through the D minor that I've ever experienced. I think I'll try to emulate Zhang the next time I play this piece!
(Oh darn, I see I haven't mentioned that he just turned 19... how careless of me!)

I mean no disrespect to Yeol Eum Son by leaving discussion of her recital til last. Remember that she was on my list of picks for the finals, and that her Spanish Rhapsody and Barber Sonata were really outstanding - even her Brahms Quintet has gained in my estimation with a few days' hindsight. Her program was skillfully planned as a cohesive progression: Lyrical Bach (in B-flat) leading directly into song-like B-flat Schubert variations; stormy F minor Schubert setting up angry C minor Beethoven, followed by ethereal C major variations. She played with style, finesse and great concentration. What I missed, though (and I know you saw this coming), was a convincing overview of each piece; the remarkable sense of architecture and inevitability that was evident before seemed to be undermined by too much attention to local detail - and that in turn was hampered by sonorities that were, to my ears, less than ravishing. This recital demonstrated the difference between eminently respectable, professional-level pianism and gripping, inspired artistry - with fatigue no doubt being a major issue in the equation. Ms. Son is the only one of the six who has to play her three portions of the finals on consecutive days - one can't help but sympathize with her...

Comments ( 4 )

Sorry I missed the finals! Haochen Zhang is my favorite after his op. 110. Thanks Greg for the updates!

Posted by marknsa | June 5, 2009 7:10 PM

I'm not sure how I can so completely agree with Mr. Allen on one performance (Tsujii's sublime rendition of Chopin #!) and yet be on the opposite end of the spectrum for the other concerto performance of the evening. Whether Nobuyuki Tsujii was channeling artist(s) of the past or augmenting his ferocious inner musical ear with recalled recordings, his Chopin was not only the high point of the evening but also a passionately fervent and heartfelt gift to those of us lucky enough to witness it (and, thanks to the Cliburn video archives of the 2009 competition, we can continue to do so, as can others). Mr. Zhang's performance of Mozart K. 466, on the other hand, showed me raw talent and an ablity to control his passions to a well-modulated extreme, albeit without the darker, moodier, and, frankly, disturbing "Don Giovanni-esque" drama which, to this listener's ear, the piece demands. The first movement remained elegant but remote, the second too broken up into small unrelated phrase readings. It was only from the small cadenza on towards the end of the third movement that I heard a glimmer of the musicality I do believe that Mr. Zhang will grow into as he matures both personally and musically. And, lest we be overly caught up in the sway of youthful just-turned-19-years-old vigor, let us also remember that Tsujii is only a year ahead of him at the ripe old age of 20.

Posted by Zaby | June 6, 2009 10:32 AM

I was a bit affraid if I had a bit problem with my ears from Nobuyuki 's performances.

I am glad I am not the only one who noticed the sound..... Nobuyuki and Artur

Posted by rubystone | June 9, 2009 5:26 AM


When my wife and I was listening to Tsujii's Chopin Concerto, we both surprised by it's strong resemblance to Rubinstein's version. It's just like hearing Rubinstein's recording (which I listen to almost everyday), and more surprisingly with tone color similar to Rubinstein, which I reckon is the most difficult part to mimic. We weren't confident we're correct about this, but apparently we are not alone. Just as what Mr. Allen said, who cares whether he copied it from Rubinstein's CD. No one ever could have achieved that and if he can, I'm not going to complain as well!

Posted by hcshih | June 9, 2009 6:37 AM

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