Nobuyuki Tsujii at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★

The recital was preceded by a short film on the remarkable rise to fame of Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii. The 34-year-old was born blind the film showed the tousle-haired toddler playing a tiny toy piano picking out tunes he heard his mother hum. He still learns all his repertoire purely by ear. He’s a star in Japan and had plenty of his fans in the audience. Tsujii saved the best until last with a dazzling performance of the Ukrainian composer Nicolai Kapustin’s 8 Concert Etudes, Op 4, a winning fusion of classical structure and jazz improvisational style. In the 1950s Kapustin played in jazz groups and big bands but his compositions are rooted in Bach rather than Stan Kenton, with all seeming improvisations fully written-out. Each is short, two minutes or thereabouts, and are ideal encores as can be seen on YouTube, including Tsujii playing the first at the end of a concert. Kapustin wisely varied their style with fast-past extrovert pieces to open and close the work but mood changes in between. Tsujii powered into the exciting third etude ‘Toccatina’, and brought out the humour in the fifth’s boogie-woogie-on-amphetamines energy. The ‘Pastoral’ sixth and the seventh ‘Intermezzo’ – the latter sounding like Hoagy Carmichael in a tuxedo – were very pleasurable.

It compensated for a pedestrian performance of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata which began the recital, with an opening movement devoid of mystery and a finale too fast, at least for Tsujii, to articulate it clearly. The Ravel items found Tsujii on more amenable territory with the miniature ‘Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn’, a delicately executed ‘Pavane’ and a sparkling, if occasionally over-insistent, ‘Jeux d'eau’. The Liszt works suited Tsujii too, beginning with the tiny wisp of the ‘Consolation, S172 No 2’ before the demanding ‘Venezia e Napoli’ triptych from ‘Années de pèlerinage’. There were some lovely moments here and a suitably frenetic dancing ‘Tarantella’ climax, but the performance lacked the individual characterization and subtle balancing and interplay of Liszt’s water and song elements which the finest interpreters give us.

Norman Stinchcombe

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