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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, January 2011

Piano competitions, over the past 20 or more years, have moved away from selecting the most moving and interpretively unique of artists to those with the flashiest, most ironclad techniques. Whether or not one likes this (and I don’t), it is a sign of the times and we have no say in it. Musically sensitive artists decry it; judges are forced to comply with it; but there it is, for better or worse.

Thus the title of this DVD documentary is only partially accurate. The “surprise” would have been that one of the finalists with the most personal view of the music—which, to my ears, were, in order, Mariangela Vacatello, Evgeni Bozhanov, and Haochen Zhang—would have finished gold-silver-bronze, but such was not the case. I won’t spoil your fun by telling you who all three of the final medalists were, but it’s certainly not going to ruin your viewing experience to say that Nobuyuki Tsujii, the blind, 20-year-old Japanese pianist, finished first. The reason it wouldn’t spoil your fun by revealing this is that approximately 75 to 80 percent of the video is devoted to Tsujii. You’d have to be denser than a rock not to see that he was the clear favorite from day one.

The skills Tsujii brought to the table were not inconsiderable. Blind from birth, he had the extraordinary handicap of having to learn every piece in his repertoire by ear, and memorize it. This is no small accomplishment. It puts him on par with such legendary musicians as Arturo Toscanini, Artur Rodzinski, and Fabien Sevitzky. It is also no small accomplishment for a physically small man with somewhat pudgy fingers to develop one of the most extraordinary techniques I’ve ever heard in my life. Tsujii can make his piano jump through hoops with the dexterity of a gold-medal gymnast, but that’s just the problem. He’s Mary Lou Retton, not Olga Korbut—a perfect machine, not an expressive if technically unspectacular artist.

Partway during the competition, Tsujii’s host family complains about the review that the Fort Worth newspaper critic wrote of his performance of Liszt’s La Campanella, that he had all the flash and glitter but no feeling for the music’s poetry, that he didn’t bring out the feeling of the bells chiming. “I don’t care what he says,” the host complains, “the audience was on their feet, cheering. I’ll go with the audience.” To be fair, Tsujii’s concerto performances took on a deeper feeling after his teacher flew in for a day to coach his young pupil in interpretation. He gave a very Chopinesque reading of a Chopin concerto and a Rachmaninoff-esque reading of that composer’s Second. It also helped, I think, that he worked with the highly professional and musically competent Conlon, who listened carefully to Tsujii’s reading (coached by his teacher) and molded the orchestra accordingly. Yet when I closed my eyes, the pianists who moved me the most were Vacatello, Bozhanov, and Zhang, with fourth place going to Yeol Eum Son.

In other respects, the video accurately captures the feeling of such a competition: the nervousness, the almost perpetual motion the contestants are in, and the amount of caffeine and Tylenol Arthritis pills they ingest. It’s nerve-wracking to say the least, and perhaps this was one of Tsujii’s keys to winning the prize. He never changed. He never got rattled. He never stressed out. He just kept going and going, like the Energizer bunny, and in the end he got the gold ring.

Tellingly, the bonus tracks, which are the only complete performances one hears on this DVD, are all of “flash” pieces. Liszt wouldn’t recognize what Tsujii and Son do to his music; it is all brittle, glittering, flashy, and unsubtle as a Mack truck. Ironically, Zhang, one of the most moving of the finalists, is also presented in a “flash” piece, the three scenes from Stravinsky’s Petrushka, yet even in this music you can hear: He’s “got” it, and they don’t. But don’t let my opinions sway you. As Euroarts says in its company slogan, “Listen with your eyes.” It’s what we are today. It’s the direction classical music is going in.

Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, December 2010

Witness Nobuyuki Tsujii’s astonishing success at the Van Cliburn competition

The 13th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition came to a lucky and tumultuous close. For the first time in its history the competition was won by a 20-year-old blind Japanese pianist, Nobuyuki Tsujii, who tied for the first place with a 19-year-old Korean pianist, Haochen Zhang. Adulation and hysteria combined with much strident trumpeting à la Texas. But statements such as “the best young pianists from all over the world” and “the most prestigious prize in the world” carry their own unintentional warning. Realistically, success at such an event is simply a climb on to the bottom rung of a very tall ladder.

Wiser and more measured words came from jury member Menahem Pressler with his timely warning that very few competitors play who mean something to the wider world of music. Celebrated among the world’s greatest chamber-music pianists, he took a dim view of those intent on display and with little idea of interaction with their fellow musicians. His notable exception was reserved for Nobuyuki Tsujii (who included Beethoven’s “Mount Everest” of the keyboard, his Op 106 Sonata, in his recital programme), who he sees as already a priest to the gods of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. “God has taken his eyes but given him rare physical and mental endowments,” he exclaimed before an emotional admission of tears when listening to Chopin of “gentleness, sweetness and authority”. And so one wishes this pianist well amid the “Nobu fever” that has engulfed Japan, always remembering that music is a long-term spiritual journey rather than an adrenalin-fuelled rush to fame.

Kirk McElhearn
MusicWeb International, November 2010

Every four years, several dozen of the world’s best young pianists gather in Fort Worth, Texas, for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This documentary shows the 2009 competition, going behind the scenes, lets us see the pianists as they prepare, perform in the three rounds, and as the best are selected. One sees the dedication of those pianists who are good enough to be selected for this competition, and the stress they undergo as they face one of the biggest challenges of their musical lives.

At the beginning, there are 29 pianists, all excellent, but the competition is tough, and in the second round 12 are chosen, and only 6 make it to the final. Competitions like this are held around the world, and in most cases, the winners don’t go on to make any major mark in classical music. The only well-known winner of the Van Cliburn competition is Radu Lupu, who won in 1966. Such competitions do help many pianists make steps and get more concert options. The Van Cliburn also sponsors concert tours and CDs by the winners.

The 2009 competition had two winners, Nobuyuki Tsujii and Haochen Zhang, the former a blind pianist who became quite popular because of this competition. Yeol Eum Son was awarded second prize, and no third prize was given. A number of additional cash prizes were given, and interestingly, the Internet Voter Award went to Mariangela Vacatello, who won no official prizes. Performances from the competition were streamed on the web.

This is a very moving film, which has hints of a reality show, and which shows the trials and tribulations of these excellent young musicians as they face the public and their judges. It’s a shame that you know who won when you watch—their three photos are on the cover of the DVD. It would have been more interesting to have the same suspense as the musicians and the audience at the time of the contest. Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for different musicians, and not only those who won, because there were so many good pianists.

The bonus feature included with the documentary is 48 minutes of solo performances by the medal winners. Given that during the documentary only short bits are shown, it is nice to see and hear these performers at greater length.

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1:38:34 PM, 4 September 2015
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