Notes and Editorial Reviews
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The blind up-and-coming Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii, an astonishing genius on his instrument, is playing for the first time ever under the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. During the White Nights Festival – dedicated to the season of midnight sun – he interprets works by the Russian composers Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich, including Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto No. 1 and Shostakovich’s gloomy Symphony No. 14. As a bonus Nobuyuki Tsujii performs his own elegy for the victims of the tsunami in 2011, a stirring and moving piece dedicated to his home country Japan. Nobuyuki
Tsujii piano, Olga Sergeyeva soprano, Yuri Vorobiev bass, Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conductor.
Recorded live from the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, 8 July 2012
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Running time: 102 mins
No. of DVDs: 1
R E V I E W:
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1. SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 14 • Valery Gergiev, cond; Mariinsky O; Noboyuki Tsujii (pn); Olga Sergeyeva (sop); Yuri Vorobiev (bs) • EUROARTS 2059358 (DVD: 102:00) Live: St. Petersburg 7/8/2012
RACHMANINOFF Prelude in g? , Op. 32/12. TSUJII Elegy for the Victims of the Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. TCHAIKOVSKY The Seasons: “November”
This video documents a concert that took place in the Mariinsky Theatre’s recently constructed concert hall during the 2012 White Nights, that annual period in the far north of Europe when the sun never quite sets completely. The title Noboyuki Tsujii at White Nights directs attention to the pianist, notwithstanding the fact that the second half of the concert, consisting of Shostakovich’s wrenching 14th Symphony, does not involve him but does feature two excellent Russian vocal soloists. For those as yet unfamiliar with Tsujii, I should mention that he is a young Japanese pianist who, despite being blind from birth, was able to win a gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn competition. For me, musical virtuosity is always something of a miracle, and it is all the more astonishing when the musician lacks the faculty of sight. I haven’t a clue as to how he does it. Nonetheless, I’m sure that Tsujii wishes to be judged not as a blind pianist but simply as a pianist.
In the Tchaikovsky Concerto, it quickly becomes apparent that Tsujii has a phenomenal technique. His fingerwork is lucid and precise even in the most demanding passages, and in what I assume to be an unedited live performance, I hear no obvious mistakes. My overall impression, however, is of a performance that is straightforward but somewhat cautious and restrained, underplaying the extravagant romanticism of the work. It is revealing to compare the Tsujii performance to that of another young competition winner, Daniil Trifonov, whose recording with the same conductor and orchestra I reviewed in 36:3. The differences are apparent from the outset. Tsujii’s opening chords are stately and grand, but Trifonov is noticeably more urgent and commanding. As the movement continues, Trifonov plays with more variety, flexibility, and impetuosity. Tsujii’s cadenza has energy and flair, but Trifonov’s is really wild. In the piano passages early in the second movement, the notes are even and detached in Tsujii’s rendition, while Trifonov is more shapely and flowing. The middle section of the movement is quick and brilliant in Tsujii’s performance but still more so in that of Trifonov, who plays with greater freedom and abandon. Similar contrasts are evident in the finale. Conductor Valery Gergiev also seems more cautious in the Tsujii performance, avoiding the abundant elasticity and exuberance he displays with Trifonov. In the last analysis, I would classify Tsujii’s performance as a good one, outstanding perhaps in technique but not in interpretation, and lacking the degree of excitement that Trifonov, not to mention such past titans as Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter, and Van Cliburn himself, have brought to this concerto.
Of the three encores performed by Tsujii at this concert, I like his swift, fluid treatment of the Rachmaninoff Prelude. He may not provide as strong a characterization as Vassily Primakov (Bridge), but then who does? Tsujii’s own Elegy for the victims of natural disaster in his homeland has some poignancy but eventually becomes repetitious. Stylistically, it could have been written before 1900. Tchaikovsky’s piano suite The Seasons is beautiful, evocative, and undervalued music. Tsujii’s performance of the “November” movement (subtitled “In the Troika”) is straightforward but sensitive, with tasteful rubato, and here I find Primakov a bit fussy, preferring Tsujii’s appealing simplicity.
Gergiev has taken some flak for his Shostakovich recordings from several Fanfare reviewers, who have questioned his tempo choices and general approach. I nonetheless think that this performance of the 14th Symphony has a lot of merit, and for me it is the highlight of the concert. Shostakovich at first hesitated to call this work a symphony. It is one in the same sense as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde , being a setting for vocal soloists, strings, and percussion of 11 mostly death-obsessed poems by Federico Garcia Lorca, Guillaume Apollinaire, Wilhelm Küchelbecker, and Rainer Maria Rilke, in Russian translation except for the Küchelbecker, which was originally in Russian. (Despite his German name, Küchelbecker was a Russian poet.) Gergiev’s approach is brooding and expressive, less charged, for example, than that of Mariss Jansons on his excellent EMI CD but still effective. Like Mahler, this music doesn’t need exaggeration. Gergiev’s timings for most if not all of the movements are longer than those of Jansons or Rudolf Barshai (Brilliant) and closer to those of Bernard Haitink (Decca). In the opening “De profundis” he takes a full minute longer than any of them, but the dirge-like tempo for this movement seems to me successful, as there is no lack of tension and the effect is appropriately chilling. In the “Malagueña,” Gergiev is less urgent and incisive than Jansons or Gidon Kremer (ECM), but his dogged, insistent treatment is effective in this grim dance of death and provides suitable backing for the soprano’s anguished declamations. This tempo would in any case seem to be justified by the movement’s Allegretto marking. The two vocal soloists are excellent, with ample, well-focused, smoothly produced voices. Soprano Olga Sergeyeva has a characteristic Russian sound without its drawbacks: Unlike Kremer’s Yulia Korpacheva, she displays little of the proverbial “Slavic wobble.” More tonally plush than Korpacheva or Larissa Gogolewskaja, the excellent soprano soloist on the Jansons recording, she sings with great intensity without ever becoming harsh or shrill, and is capable of powerful dramatic outbursts as well as floated tone and hushed, expressive singing. Bass Yuri Vorobiev has a solid, well-rounded voice, not as large as that of Sergei Aleksashkin (Jansons) or Fedor Kuznetsov (Kremer) but steadier in tone and secure at both ends of his range. Vorobiev declaims the Cossacks’ insulting response to the Ottoman Sultan with considerable force, but his flowing, lyrical treatment of the Küchelbecker poem (“O, Del’vig, Del’vig”) contrasts with Aleksashkin’s more stentorian approach and is, I think, appropriate for this movement. Both of Gergiev’s singers enunciate well and are sensitive to the text. Gergiev, who usually conducts with bare hands, here uses a tiny, toothpick-sized wand. The lack of texts and translations, either in the form of subtitles or in print, is the one major shortcoming of this recording.
The stereo sound is good overall, smooth and free from harshness. The orchestral texture is a bit opaque in the Tchaikovsky but seems less so in the Shostakovich, perhaps due in part to the smaller ensemble involved. The piano sound is solid, well defined, and free from ringing, if somewhat short on brightness. The voices fare best of all in this recording, free from blurring due to reverberation and from any other shortcomings. The DVD also offers Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround options, which I do not have the equipment to evaluate. Picture quality is good, and the camerawork is unobtrusively effective, offering a suitable mix of views of the soloists, conductor, and orchestral players.
Noboyuki Tsujii clearly has great potential, and his achievements to this point deserve to be recognized as extraordinary. This video is a document of his developing career. As for the Shostakovich performance, Gergiev’s approach is certainly not the only possible one, but I find it valid and rewarding, and he and his excellent singers achieve gripping results. The recordings of Jansons, Barshai, and Kremer may be still more powerfully drawn, but those are on CD. The ability to watch the musicians and observe their deep involvement in this harrowing music adds a significant dimension to the experience.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 14 in G minor, Op. 135 by Dmitri Shostakovich
Yuri Vorobiev (Bass),
Olga Sergeyeva (Soprano)
St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1969; USSR
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