Tchaikovsky's Concerto and Schumann's Papillons

It took a week for the CD to cross the Pacific Ocean, but on a bright Saturday afternoon (February 27) the package from Japan was finally delivered to the door of my home in California.

And out came that CD with the teal-color accented cover photo (see above) of Nobuyuki Tsujii celebrating on stage with long-time mentor Yutaka Sado after a successful performance in his England debut concert back last December (2010).  As is the wont of Avex Classics’ pricey releases, the album case is lined with high-quality photos and packaged with glossy liner notes. 

What is on the CD is an odd mix: The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 recorded in England in December 2010, and, as a bonus, a solo piece recorded in Germany in May of that year.  Clearly, this is a release riding on the popularity of Nobuyuki Tsujii

It is a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy the Tchaikovsy Piano Concerto 1.  Recorded in BBC’s Studio 7 the day after a live performance in England, this rendition has the benefit of sound engineering.   Compared to the live performance aired on BBC3 (see related article BBC Broadcast, Jan. 13, 2011) in January and to be rebroadcast next week (February 28), the sound of the orchestra in this recording is noticeably more lush, Nobuyuki’s piano notes stand out clearer, and the balance between the piano and the orchestra is improved.  Hard-nosed critics may find flaws with it, but I am plenty happy with having this recording in my collection and will enjoy listening to it often.

But I will have to admit that, secretly, what I was most looking forward to is hearing the solo piece: Robert Schmann’s Papillons.  I first heard this piece performed by Nobuyuki at a recital last October (2010).  At the time, I knew nothing about this work, and didn’t have time to look it up.  But I thought it beautiful; the opening especially I found captivating.  This is saying a lot about this piece because, on that particular recital program, it was sandwiched between two Chopin’s nocturnes (Op. 27) and two Liszt pieces (“Un Sospiro” and “Rigoletto”), all lyrical show pieces that I favor.   Papillons seemed, at the time, so different; and yet it grabbed my attention from the start.  I have since noticed that this piece is singled out by a number of writers in  reviews of Nobu’s recitals on that  U.S. tour.

Among the many reasons  for which I am thankful to Nobuyuki is a motivation to educate myself on the appreciation of classical music.   I have learned now that I was not alone in knowing little about Schumann’s Papillons.  Of the literature on the web that I came across, the most helpful by far is an audio that was, fittingly, funded by the Cliburn Foundation: Professor Carol’s Podcast Schumann’s Papillons and Fantasy, March 2, 2007 - : -- I strongly recommend a visit to this page if you wish to appreciate Nobu’s Papillons.

This is what I learned.  In spite of its title, the Papillons is not about butterflies at all, but is instead “a musical portrayal of events in Jean Paul's novel Die Flegeljahre”, about twin brothers of opposing characters.  This work is composed of 12 short pieces that are dances. – Nobu’s performance of the whole work comes in at just under 13 minutes.  Written by Schumann when he was only 19, the Papillons is considered a precursor to his better known work Fantasy.

Robert Schumann (picture above, right) was a complex person.  In spite of his brilliance, he was tormented throughout his short life by a failed aspiration to become a virtuoso pianist, a difficult courtship, and mental illness.   I don’t know how much Nobuyuki Tsujii is aware of Schumann’s history, but he seems to like the works of this German musical giant,  a contemporary of  and the same age as Frederic Chopin.  You may recall that Nobu performed Schumann’s Quintet in the semi-final round of the 2009 Cliburn Competition with the Takacs Quartet – a chamber-music performance that he and the Quartet will reprise in three upcoming concerts this  April in California.

In spite of not being well known,  the Papillons has been recorded by pianist giants such as Alfred Cartot, Wilhelm Kempff, and Sviatoslav Richter.  If you don’t have Nobu’s latest CD, listen to any of these versions (available on YouTube) and you will get a good idea.  All these renditions, however, were performed by these legendary pianists at a ripe old age, compared to the tender age of  21 when Nobu recorded this piece for this album.   I am realistic enough to know that Nobu has a lot of maturity to go through before he will be considered to have reached the level of these giants.  But at the same time, I like Nobu’s music precisely because he is so young: his interpretation has an innocence unspoiled by cynicism that inevitably comes with age. 

I was especially interested in how Nobu approaches the conclusion of the Papillons.  The ending of this piece is unusual; this is how it is described by Professor Carol in the aforementioned audio:

As he would in future works, Schumann set forth with a signature theme, and brings it back carefully for specific dramatic purposes.  In Papillons, we hear the signature melody only twice: in the beginning and in the end, and in between are … vivid and delightful melodies.

In one of the most innovative conclusions ever written, the recap of the signature melody yields to a  fragmentation and fading out of this theme over a long, sustained pedaled note.  In the final 19 measures of this piece, we hear a simple chorus and a triple rhythm of a waltz, but a waltz that has already packed up and gone home.   Then, in a radical  final passage, Schumann splays the chords upward and instructs the pianist to lift the fingers one by one, off from the bottom of the chord, creating an eerie sound effect to conclude this piece.

Intrigued by this description, I listened repeatedly to how Nobu handles that conclusion, and compared it with Richter’s -- Russian Sviatoslav Richter happens to be the only other pianists some of whose albums I own.   Hard-nosed critics will probably fault Nobu for playing the ending too straight-forwardly, just as some who derided Nobu for playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody (at the Cliburn Competition) without adding improvised embellishment.  (Incidentally, the Hungarian Rhapsody is another solo piece that appears in the 2-disc limited-edition version of the Tchaikovsky 1 album.)

With Richter, the sound of the fragmentation of the main theme and the fading waltz is faint and tragic.   It conveys the sadness of an older man to whom the days of pleasures in life are in the past and would likely never return.    With Nobu, the waltz fades and the piece ends on a melancholy note, but it is a young man’s expression of the sweet sorrow of parting: the pleasures have ended -- for now -- but will return for another day.  I like both versions, but prefer the brighter and more optimistic interpretation of young Nobu throughout the piece.

In addition to the ending and the beautiful main theme, there is a lyrical stanza about 30 seconds into track 13 (or track 10 of the Papillons)  that I love –  a melody, very Schumann, whose beauty is brought out by Nobu’s delicate touch.  (You can hear a sample of these parts by going to this page and listen to the sample of track 13 (for the lyrical part) and 15 (for the theme piece as it appears at the end).

On one website that specializes in music sheets, the Papillons is rated 8+ (eight plus) on a scale of 10.  So technically it is not the most difficult.   I am surprised at how much I do like this piece, and will have to find room for it on my “My Favorite Nobu” playlist (see My Favorite Nobu (Tunes))

A final note: this album is an interesting study in recording technology.  The Tchaikovsky concerto was recorded in BBC’s Studio 7 in Manchester, England.  The Papillons was recorded in Germany at the same time as the recording of Nobuyuki’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” album.  They are completely different types of music, I reckon, but I think I can see why Avex Classic dispatches Nobuyuki Tsujii to the Teldex Studio in Berlin to record his recitals – the brilliance of the piano tone and the  purity of its sound, as illustrated in the solo piece on this album, is unmistakable --  even to an amateur like me.

-- M. L. Liu, California, U.S.A., February 27, 2011


And below is an entry on a Japanese blog site, which very kindly mentions this site often :-) domo aregato!

(Very Rough translation)

With Tsujii Nobuyuki's honest piano and BBC Philharmonic's sound firmly on board, this is a very good performance.
Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1: the first movement is particularly magnificent,  I felt capable of fully experiencing the dramatic spread of this movement's melody. Violin solo of the second movement, from the time .... small wind oboe solo and piano accompaniment.
The third movement is a thrilling clash of piano and orchestra momentum.

The concert is coupled with a work by Schumann.  "Papillon" is a lot of short songs called Small Works, each with a personality,
... I find myself singing with  the cheerful rhythms, such as the Japanese lyrics.