Nobuyuki Tsujii plays Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3

Since this article was first written, Nobu has successfully performed this concerto in Italy, Canada, U.K. Most recently, in 2015, Nobu performed this concerto in Vienna's Golden Hall with Yutaka Sado, which you can view in this video -- the performance starts at 13:17
Nobuyuki Tsujii at the Vienna Golden Hall 2015 by nobufans

The following article was originally posted by M. L. Liu on April 12, 2012

Nobuyuki Tsujii plays Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3

It has been all quiet on the Nobu front. I expect next week to be the same. Nobuyuki Tsujii, having completed his hugely successful 2011-12 Japan tour, is perhaps taking a much deserved vacation. More likely, though, is that he is hard at work practicing Piano Concerto Number 3 by Sergei Prokofiev.
Next month, for the first time in public, Nobu will be performing that work, Prokofiev 3: on May 13 in Basel, then again on May 23 in Brighton, England, and May 24 in London. In Basel, he will perform with British conductor Michael Collins and the Sinfonieorchester Basel; and, in London, with the Phiharmonia and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy. These are big names in classical music.

"The piano concerto has long been considered the ultimate expression of keyboard virtuosity, and as such, composers have let their ambition and vision run rampant in writing these amazing pieces"[2]. The music score for a concerto generally takes up around a hundred pages -- it is not for the faint of heart. Among concertos, there are some that are considered more challenging than others. This concerto, the Prokofiev 3, is one of them.

Of Prokofiev's piano concerto no. 2, pianist Angela Hewitt said "It is best played when you are young and fearless." [2] Prokofiev 3 is regarded as less demanding than No. 2, but it is nevertheless right up there among the concertos considered most challenging, even for virtuosos -- sighted virtuosos.

If you are not familiar with this work, I highly recommend the YouTube videos of a 2008 performance by super-virtuoso Martha Argerich (with the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della). Take a look at the first movement, if nothing else:, and imagine playing it with eyes closed.

I have no way of verifying this, but I am reasonably sure that Nobuyuki Tsujii will be making history as the first blind pianist ever to perform this work in public. Not that he has not already done so with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (Tchai 1), also considered among the most difficult of piano works. But the two concertos are vastly different. Tchai 1 is the ultimate in romanticism. Although it is technically difficult to the point that the composer's own teacher considered it unplayable, its lyricism -- one would assume -- makes the monumental work relatively easy to commit to memory. Furthermore, the piano part is dominant in Tchai 1 and therefore the pianist has the luxury of leading the orchestra. Prokofiev's concertos, on the other hand, are notorious for their dissonances (chords composed of notes that do not harmonize) and syncopation (off-beat rhythms), which would make memorizing the score a superhuman effort for anyone, but especially for someone who does not have the luxury of reading the score by sight. Moreover, the pianist and the orchestra are equal partners in this concerto. The third movement, in particular, is supposed to approximate an argument between the piano and the orchestra [1].

The thought of Nobu performing Prokofiev 3 scares me. The technical demand is extreme. There are "long runs up and down the keyboard", some "consisting entirely of ascending parallel triads and glissandi". (Triads are three note chords; a glissando is the playing of two notes in a glide.). There are "frenetic sixteenth-note arpeggios" (successive notes, sixteen of them cramped into one measure) . There are "octaves interspersed with close tones either above or below(in a triplet rhythm), moving up and down the keyboard with the hands usually on top of one another". And that's just in the first movement, Andante - Allegro (C major).

The second movement, Tema con variazioni in E minor, has five variations of a theme. One variation calls for the piano to start "with a long trill followed by a glissando-like run up the keyboard". Another sends the pianist chasing the orchestra with long runs up and down the keyboard. Yet another variation requires the piano and the orchestra to play together in a "heavily syncopated", "jazzy" rhythm. The final variation is "another allegro romp" during which the piano provides "double-time obbligato accompaniment" to the galloping orchestra. By "double-time obbligato (or obligato) accompaniment", it is meant that the pianist is required to play the notes exactly as written, at twice the speed of the orchestra.

Then, in the last movement, Allegro, ma non troppo (C major) -- "allegro ma non troppo" means to play "fast, but not overly so" -- there is the famous coda (ending). It "explodes into a musical battle between soloist and orchestra, with dazzling piano ornamentation over the orchestra". This ornamentation includes "famously difficult double-note scales", which look like this on the music sheet [4]:
These double-note scales are "sometimes approximated by pianists with keyboard glissandos using the knuckles" (that is, the pianist strikes the two notes with his/her knuckles, gliding his/her hands from one pair of notes to another to make the scale.) One YouTube poster wrote that Argerich plays one note with one hand and the other with the other hand[4]. Other comments suggest that the pianist put a finger on two adjacent keys (on the "crack" of the keys) to hit the two notes together. Well, you get the idea -- amateurs: don't try this at home!

Canadian pianist great Glenn Gould supposedly said, "One does not play the piano with one's fingers, one plays the piano with one's mind"[3] . I am convinced that Nobu is a musical genius, and so it goes to reason that even without the use of sight, he is able to exercise his beautiful mind to produce nearly flawless performances such as Liszt's La Campanella at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, Beethoven's Hammerklavier at the same, and Tchai 1 ( numerous times since 2010 -- on multiple continents). What's more, this is a young man who is at ease with dissonances and syncopation -- just watch him play John Musto's Improvisation and Fugue [6] or Kapustin's 8 Concert Etudes for Piano Op. 40-2[5]. And even though I still find it defies belief, he handles long runs, large leaps, and rapid hand crosses with aplomb -- nothing fazes this kid, it seems. Yet, as anyone can see in the YouTube videos of Prokofiev 3, this performance requires ALL of these virtuoso elements carried out in rapid-fire succession, over and over again. If Nobu's playing of the La Campanella is akin to a blind-folded acrobat doing twists and turns on an air-borne swing, then his playing of this concerto would be like a hooded trapeze artist traversing the Niagara Falls on high wire ... back and forth ... dancing ... in a raging storm.

My biggest concern, however, is with the coordination between Nobu and the orchestra -- orchestras that he has never performed with. Watch those YouTube videos and you will see how even a seasoned Argerich eyed the conductor intently as she performed this work. I know that the story goes that Nobu listens for the breathing of the conductor. But from what I have seen, the synchronization actually depends on the generosity of a conductor who is willing to accommodate Nobu by turning around at crucial moments to follow the hand movements of Nobu. In a piece as complex as this, I fear that the conductor may not have the luxury, nor the propensity, for that generosity. (In this regard, Maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy -- a piano great -- should have an easier time than Maestro Michael Collins, whose own instrument is the clarinet.)

I don't expect to hear about the Switzerland performance very much. But I will be traveling to England to be in the Royal Festival Hall to see for myself. I may not be seated close enough to the stage to see which technique Nobu chooses to tackle those double-note scales, but I will be there, on the edge of my seat, my heart in my mouth -- for the entire thirty minutes. The performance will be an adrenaline rush. This one is for the head.

For the good of my heart, there will be another performance, of Chopin's Piano Concerto no. 1 . It will be performed with the same conductor and the same orchestra, elsewhere in England, one week later. I can hardly wait for both performances.

My thanks to Deb, trained classical music pianist and fellow Nobu admirer, for her input on this topic. She wrote:
"The work is difficult technically but is just as much a dexterity and stamina test on the pianist."
"A conductor can work around Nobu not being able to "cue" as it's called (looking at one another for when piano or orchestra are to come in together on an upbeat for example). Nobu has such acute hearing, to compensate for lack of sight, I really wouldn't worry about the coordination with he and the orchestra. I'm sure they have and will practice many times together before the performance and as many pianists are taught, if in a live performance, things go awry a tad, use it as a learning experience so it won't happen again. I highly doubt things will go awry, and Nobu is such a professional, knows the music so well, if he had a small flaw, he could cover it beautifully.
I recommend you watch the YouTube video of Prokofiev speaking about his music: "

Sources of information for this article
[1] Unless otherwise specified, the quotes in this piece are from the wikipedia
[2] Piano Street, posting
[3]bookofjoe, "There are three kinds of pianists"
[4]YouTube video "Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.3 Op.26 Movement 3 (Argerich)"
[5] YouTube video "Tsujii Nobuyuki Kapustin 8 Concert Etudes for Piano Op. 40-2, 2003 (at age 15)"
[6] YouTube video " Nobuyuki Tsujii 辻井伸行 THE Cliburn 2009 SEMIFINAL RECITAL "
[7] The original video "Japan Lights"

◆ On May 13, Nobuyuki Tsujii performed this concerto in Basel. Not much has been heard from it, but a tweet posted at the end of the day of the performance, by a Japanese in Basel, was reassuring: "辻井伸行Michael Collins母の日コンサート@Basel最高でした。ピアノさばきがよく見える席から観覧。感動。Nobuyuki Tsujii Michael Collins Mother's Day concert at Basel was the best. I had a good view of the piano from where we sat. Exciting!" <As it turns out there was a very positive review in a Basel newspaper -
See below.
◆ On May 14, a blog post in Japanese, by a musician who transcribes music scores for Nobu, wrote:
"Nobu was practicing so hard every day to prepare for the London debut (on May 24). He was at the piano all the time except when he ate and slept ... I had a pretty hard time making tapes of that concerto (Prokofiev 3). It was so different from just listening to it ... He will do well at the concert with (Vladimir) Ashkenazy." (Translation compliments of a Nobu fan in Japan.)
◆ On May 16, In response to my comment on the blog, this blogger -- who works with Nobu when he learns a new piece -- wrote:
Thank you for your comment
Please don't mind that I write in Japanese
Nobu ...
worked on the Prokofiev since March, with a tremendous practice every single day
The hammers of the piano at his house became useless ...
Prokofiev lessons,
Was done with sweat every time
London debut with Ashkenazy ...
I hope will be finished with great success
Unfortunately I will be in Japan, and so won't get to listen ,
I hope to go to a concert overseas or in Japan in the near future also
What I would like ... (laughs)
When he returns home,
Is to begin to do recitals.
Just a nice song
Please, I hope only recitals
Thank you
It's great to know that Nobu is working with someone with such a great sense of humor :-) :-)

◆ Further notes of interest from this source, Nobu's piano coach:
-It was Vladimir Ashkenazy who requested the concerto, perhaps as a challenge to Nobu,
-Nobu started learning the Prokofiev in March and practiced it ferociously since - presumably even as he was on his Japan tour.
-During the last lesson that he had with this music coach, before leaving Japan, Nobu had to change his sweat-soaked clothes twice from the strenuous playing of the concerto.

◆ I am not 100% certain of this, since my seat in the Royal Festival Hall was not that close to the stage, but I believe Nobu played the double-note scales using two hands, in the manner of Martha Argerich.

◆ During the London performance, Ashkenazy turned to look at Nobu's finger work often and, according to others more knowledgeable than I, allowed Nobu to take "all the leads".

Comments on Nobuyuki Tsujii's debut Prokofiev 3 performances
"Fascinating Listening experience
Following the Mozart was the Third Piano Concerto (C major, Opus 26) by Sergei Prokofiev.
Now the contrast: The suggestive sound effects of this ever-popular concerto requires extreme technical virtuosity of the soloist. Prokofiev was an extremely accomplished pianist; he knew exactly what he should ask for and what the effects should be.
On Sunday, there was a fascinating display of this virtuosity and listening experience, because the 24-year-old <actually, only 23> Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii is blind. Fortunately, it has not been made into a spectacle, but rather beginning with a touching and disturbing opening, as Mr. Collins escorted the young man to the Steinway, on which the pianist proceeded to touch and feel the keyboard.
What followed then from the first to the last bar was a miracle of pianistic accomplishment, but also musical sensitivity. The interaction succeeded with the orchestra; the collaboration was seamless, as if he could see the conductor. For example, his solo at the beginning of the variation movement <the second movement> revealed that he has internalized the music. What remained was astonished admiration for a very high power.
The final ovation and applause was tremendous and was probably mainly for him."  -"Culture" Tuesday May 15, p. 30, Basellandschaftliche News "Mozart and Prokofiev, instead of flowers" by Nicolaus Cybinski (Basel, Switzerland)

"Last night at the Brighton Dome - Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia. Programme started with Nobuyuki Tsujii (a blind Japanese pianist 24 years old) giving an astonishing virtuoso performance of Prokofiev 3rd Piano Concerto, with real feeling and understanding for one so young. It is the first time I witnessed a conductor taking all the leads from the soloist. Quite remarkable." - a comment posted on U.K. amazon

"The Prokofiev work is percussive and highly complex rhythmically, and Tsujii played it with great precision - a remarkable achievement. From a slightly downbeat start, he seemed to grow in confidence as the work progressed; by the end of the third movement, he was bringing out Prokofiev's full ebullience. It's a mercurial concerto with many flights of fancy, and the orchestra were on fine form, but unfortunately, the balance wasn't always right. Tsujii isn't the loudest of pianists and while this was didn't matter at all in his solo moments, he was rather drowned out on the passages where pianist and orchestral tutti played together."-- David Karlin, a review of the London performance that appeared on <I strongly disagree with the comment on the balance and wondered if the reviewer had a bad seat; in response, the writer tweeted: "Seat excellent: row G in line w Tsujii's fingers. But RFH is a weird place for piano acoustics - have had probs b4.".>

"Nobuyuki Tsujii maintained a dizzying momentum, particularly in the outer movements. The constant changes in character and tempo which propel the music forward were, for the most part, deftly navigated by soloist and orchestra. (A feat which takes on a new dimension when one considers that Tsujii is blind.) However, Tsujii’s fortissimos lacked the depth of tone which, for all its panache, this music demands. " -- a review of the London performance, <I disagree with the comment on the (lacking) "depth of tone".>

"Nobuyuki Tsujii is a remarkable pianist. Blind since birth, he enjoyed success in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, a win that effectively launched his international career. He is certainly not the first blind pianist (Bernard d’Ascoli springs to mind), but that hardly diminished his achievement. Ashkenazy was an attentive accompanist (there were a few tattered corners, it is true, particularly the semiquaver passage in the first movement before the return of the first allegro theme). A major Prokofiev interpreter – who has of course recorded this concerto what seems an age ago now – Ashkenazy ensured a remarkably sweet string sound for the opening Andante. Tsujii’s dry delivery and very idiomatic staccato was a joy, as was his simply gorgeous touch in pianissimo. Throughout, the pianist’s awareness of voice-leading was illuminating. The central movement (a Theme and Variations) found Tsujii playing with great character; his way with the acciaccaturas of the finale was also most attractive, as was his staccato music-box passage in the same movement. The audience loved him, and so they should. We even got a brief, but beautifully executed encore in the shape of Rachmaninov’s G sharp minor Prelude, Op. 32/13. -- "Ashkenazy Conducts Russian Music" by Colin Clarke, May 26, 2012 (review of the London performance), "Seen and heard International"

"In the first half, Ashkenazy led on pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii in a slow, two-man conga line through the violin section of the Philharmonia. Blind since birth, 23-year-old Tsujii tossed off a jaw-dropping rendition of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in C Major, one of the most virtuosic of piano concerti, with a smile on his face and – it appeared – with no exertion. Throughout the performance, he would stretch out both hands to the far reaches of the keyboard and bring them back to the centre to reset himself, like some wonderful musical typewriter in a tail coat.
Along with his effortless execution and exaggerated physical tics, he is one of the more memorable soloists. He rocked back and forth completely out of time with the music and was relentlessly turning his head from side to side like a wary meerkat throughout. His ebullience however, was infectious. The Philharmonia were completely locked-in to his mad, superhuman tempi throughout and the Finale took off like a rocket which I’m sure has yet to land." -- Jem Muharrem commenting on the Brighton performance

◆Posted on May 24, 2012
BF: Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy
The soloist in Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto was the blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. Normally one would not want to highlight disability, but the phenomenal power and precision of his playing, to say nothing of his ability to respond with enormous sensitivity to orchestra and conductor, was mind-blowing. His approach was aggressive and forthright, bringing intense energy to the technical expertise at his command. It was no wonder that Ashkenazy, as much a pianist as a conductor, had chosen this young man as the soloist for the fireworks and the intellectual challenge of the concerto.
A packed audience followed the evening with hard edged concentration and rewarded the performers with extended applause. BH

◆According to Nobu fan MK in Japan, the <July issue of > Ongaku no Tomo ("Friends of Music") magazine had a short article written by <Japanese music writer based in London> Nahoko Gotoh. She wrote that Ashkenazy said Nobu would be able to perform anything because his Prok was great. She also wrote that many in the audience came to that particular concert to hear"Babi Yar", not knowing anything about Nobu, and then was amazed by Nobu's performance. She wrote that many people uttered a sigh of admiration when he finished performing the Rach prelude.