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Nobuyuki Tsujii’s gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition touched off a firestorm of controversy — but the sustained cheers at his Seattle debut recital made it clear why the Cliburn judges gave him the nod.

Tsujii, 24 years old and blind since birth, is an absolute force of nature. It’s almost inconceivable that he has been able to learn every detail of huge, complicated piano works by ear, much less play them at a spectacular technical level without being able to see exactly where his fingers are going. Only in a few isolated places is the listener aware that Tsujii has to feel his way forward on the keyboard; he plays with a degree of technical security almost all sighted pianists might envy.

Tsujii’s playing thrilled his Seattle listeners, who called him back repeatedly for encores. But it is also easy to see why his playing is not to every taste — so much so that The Wall Street Journal declared of the Cliburn Competition outcome, “Nothing in recent memory has been as shocking as this year’s top prizes,” and The Dallas Morning News said that if the Cliburn contestants “had been judged purely on musical values,” Tsujii would not have won.

When playing is this exciting, why all those reservations? Tsujii’s high-octane recital here focused on Debussy and Chopin, repertoire in which translucency and poetry are required along with heroic technique. The Impressionist delicacy of the Debussy set (“Two Arabesques,” “Suite Bergamasque,” “Estampes”) was trampled by Tsujii’s tendency to play almost everything fast and loud. Best of this set was the exuberant “L’Isle joyeuse,” which was joyous indeed.

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Tsujii chose some of Chopin’s more assertive repertoire for the second half, including the “Grande valse brillante” of Op. 18, the B-flat Minor Scherzo of Op. 31, and two big Polonaises (both in A-Flat Major, ending with the “Héroique”). The Scherzo in particular demonstrated Tsujii’s keyboard facility at its most explosive, though many of the more expressive opportunities were bypassed in favor of speed and volume.

The delighted audience brought Tsujii back for three encores: a heavy-handed Chopin Nocturne in D-Flat Major (Op. 27, No. 2), a wistful and unsophisticated composition of his own, and an extended fantasy on the Stephen Foster song, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.”

On Sunday, you’ll have a chance to hear him in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, a bravura work that should be right up Tsujii’s alley, in a special “Celebrate Asia” concert with the Seattle Symphony. Here’s betting this piano phenomenon brings down the house.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at

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