Fujita brings light touch to Liszt, Brahms, and the Schumanns in Carnegie debut

Thu Jan 26, 2023 at 1:00 pm
Mao Fujita performed Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

One gets the feeling that when Mao Fujita looks at a score he sees not scales, chords and octaves but shapes.

At times during the 24-year-old, Tokyo-born pianist’s debut at Carnegie Hall Wednesday night, one wished those shapes had a few more bones in them. But for the most part, Fujita’s loving molding of music by Mozart, Liszt, Brahms and the two Schumanns was a sonic delight.

All evening, the pianist never passed up an opportunity to play fast and leggiero, with fingertip control of dynamic shadings in the piano-to-pianissimo range—an impressive skill. But as Mozart’s Nine Variations on a theme by J.P. Duport, K. 573, got underway, one worried he might use that touch for the whole piece.

Mozart had whipped up the variations as his calling card at no less a venue than the Prussian royal court, where the noted cellist Duport presided over chamber music and gave the King cello lessons. He took Duport’s surpassingly dull tune and poured all his ingenuity and technical wizardry into it. It was music meant to impress.

Polished as it was, Fujita’s performance Wednesday didn’t so much dazzle as diddle, managing a lot of light fingerwork, but only a touch of pathos here and a flicker of fire there, before closing with a reprise (please, no) of the original theme.

Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 311, is a piece of another order, studded with striking ideas in a compelling sonata form. But Fujita’s fingers continued to fly lightly over the keys, settling for a general impression of fluidity and insouciance instead of really addressing the first movement’s content.

The Andante meandered out of time at first, but became quietly engrossing once the tempo steadied. The closing Rondeau was speedy but not rushed, and each of its well-contrasted themes came across clearly, a happy ending to a performance that began unpromisingly.

A potent rumble in the piano’s bass transported the listener from Mozartean fancy to the elemental world of Liszt, as the dramatic opening pages of the latter’s Ballade No. 2 in B minor revealed Fujita as an eloquent storyteller in tones. Shapes grew out of shapes as crashing waves became plaintive melodies and furious rage melted into heavenly vistas. The pianist’s sensitive voicing and tonal imagination made the listener see it all.

Fujita was only too happy to retreat into pianissimo for long stretches, the better to pounce with a sudden crescendo. Liszt’s singing melodies, whether wafting high or glowing in the piano’s baritone range, got their due.

Like this composer’s great Sonata in the same key, this piece and its constantly shifting scenes can sound choppy and episodic. In Fujita’s hands, it seemed to grow organically.

Having triumphed in the freeform composing world of Liszt—and left some points on the table in Mozart’s variations—it was daring of Fujita to turn next to another theme and variations, by none other than the Hungarian composer’s chief antagonist, Johannes Brahms.

In fact, the recital’s second half was devoted to the Schumann circle, with music by husband and wife Robert and Clara, and by their young friend Brahms. The latter’s Theme and Variations in D minor, Op. 18b, transcribed for Clara from the slow movement of his B-flat major Sextet, sounded as somber and contained as the Ballade had been effusive, and showed Fujita to be as capable a Brahmsian as he was a Lisztian.

In the peculiar sound world of Brahms—the beefy textures and minor-key harmonies so larded with major chords as to sound almost modal—he explored the voicings and colors of six variations that didn’t stray far from home. This was, after all, not a piece but a movement of a piece.

The thoughtful mood continued in the first of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 21—dedicated to Brahms. A simple, melancholy tune alternated with more ebullient music in the middle. Fujita’s feathery leggiero lifted up the scherzo-like second Romance and the buttery, swirling figurations of the third.

The pianist then plunged without pause into the impulsive first movement of Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, whose fast and loud finish brought prolonged applause from the audience, which apparently thought this was the end of the Clara set, not the beginning of the Robert. Whatever might have been the artistic interest of linking wife and husband this way, it’s never good when the audience doesn’t know what it’s listening to. (Unless it’s Yuja Wang in a deliberate guessing-game recital, and maybe not even then.)

That said, Robert’s sonata movement lived up to its tempo marking (“as fast as possible”) without ever sounding helter-skelter; Fujita’s playing had the fluid exuberance of whitewater rapids. He lost the thread a bit in the tender, delicately colored Andantino, the lovely melody sagging under too much rubato, but Schumann’s “Florestan” alter ego snapped to attention in the brief, biting scherzo.

The well-designed Rondo finale went for maximum contrast between its furious and dreamy themes, with Fujita deploying his trademark pianissimo leggiero often, to suspenseful effect. He could have held the tempo back just a touch to make the più presto coda more effective, but the audience ate this performance up anyway, calling the pianist back for three encores.

The first of these, the opening movement of Mozart’s “easy” Sonata in C major, K. 545, brought a chuckle from the audience at first, but its crispness and character made it the pianist’s finest Mozart performance of the night. (If one learned nothing else this evening, it was that no piece by Mozart is “easy.”)

Then Fujita treated listeners to a sonorous, propulsive Etude in D-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 12 by Scriabin, and one last serving of his lightning leggiero in Moszkowski’s Etude in A-flat Major, Op. 72, No. 11.

Carnegie Hall presents the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with pianist Yuja Wang in Rachmaninoff’s four piano concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini 4 p.m. Saturday Jan. 28. carnegiehall.org.

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