Tomoki Sakata in his semifinal chamber concert with the Brentano String Quartet
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Cliburn Semifinals: Tomoki Sakata

Reviews of the semifinal performances by the 19-year-old Japanese pianist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Second round added.

published Monday, June 3, 2013

Recital: Saturday, June 1, 8:25 p.m.

Photo: Carolyn Cruz/The Cliburn
Tomoki Sakata backstage before his semifinal recital performance


Tomoki Sakata started out with Theofanidis’ Birichino. This is now the third time we have heard this piece and none have really caught the mischievous nature of it. Sakata, who played it with the music, missed it completely. He played all the notes with great skill and carefully observed all of the dynamic and accents. His phrasing was excellent and he tied all of the separate components tighter. He just didn’t have any fun at all. This is a piece full of humor and some downright funny passages and he played it like a Liszt étude. 

Speaking of Liszt, Sakata also played the Liszt transcription of, and elaboration on, two pieces of music from Verdi’s opera Aida. He picked two strange excerpts to conjoin: the temple music, which is a diversion in the opera to allow the ballet to have something to do; and the heart-wrenching final duet with the two lovers breathing their last breaths while sealed up in Radames’ tomb. However, if you completely forgot the source of the music, this is one of Liszt’s more enjoyable pieces. Sakata gave it a fine performance. 

In between the Theofanidis and the Liszt-Verdi shotgun wedding, Sakata played a wonderful excursion through Debussy’s Études, Book 1. These are rarely heard, which is a shame because they are some of the composer’s best work of his late period and show the bold and experimental harmonic direction that he was taking. They are also extremely difficult and Debussy himself said that they were designed to scare off the faint of heart. There is also some humor in them. For example, the first one, which uses five-note scales up and down, is titled Étude 1 pour les cinq doigts d'après Monsieur Czerny (five fingers, "after Monsieur Czerny"). Czerny was the protégé of Beethoven, from the age of 10, and later became his assistant. The reference here is to his books of studies that have plagued piano students ever since.

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Tomoki Sakata in his
semifinal recital performance

Sakata played a revelatory performance of these strange (in a good way) études. They progress by intervals: studies in parallel thirds, fourths, sixths and octaves. Back then, a study in seconds was unthinkable, even for Debussy. It would take Ravel in "Scarbo" (from his Gaspard de la nuit) to run a scale in seconds. Sakata displayed an awesome technique, and he made some music in the process.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have the same grasp of the Rachmaninov Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 36 (1931). The biggest problem was that he didn’t really have the big picture of the architecture, and this is a very well-constructed piece. It is in three movements played without a pause, but here the main difference was tempo instead of the nature of the musical material and treatment in the movements. Dynamics are always a problem in Rachmaninov and Sakata failed to bring the soft sections down to the proper level. There are entire pages marked pianissimo but you wouldn’t know it from this performance. This is not to say that Sakata didn’t play softly here and there, but the dynamics were overdriven for most of the piece. The trouble with this is that the contrast isn’t there so the sonata begins to sound similar throughout. He was left with nowhere bigger to go at the end of the last movement and therefore missed some of the last notes in an effort to play louder.


Chamber: Monday, June 3, 8:25 p.m.

Things greatly improved on the chamber music front today. Perhaps it was because the later contestants were more attuned to the balance in the hall or members of the audience (or maybe the press) told them that the piano was speaking too loudly. Maybe they were more experienced chamber musicians. Whatever the reason, Tomoki Sakata and the Brentano String Quartet turned in a sensitive performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, op. 44. Both pianist and quartet appeared to be enjoying the experience as much as the audience.  

Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Tomoki Sakata in his semifinal chamber concert with the Brentano String Quartet

The most important aspect of the performance was the balance between strings and piano. This has plagued some other contestants but Sakata kept his playing well under control. He had a firm grasp on when he was the accompanist and when he was the soloist. Sometimes, that was the difference between the music for his two hands, with one accompanying the other.

While there were many outstanding moments, the second theme of the second movement was a standout. It was played as a song and accompanied in the same manner. The scherzo was replete with Schumann’s moving accents and the two trios were nearly perfect. The piano was a little too strong at the beginning of the coda, but all ended well. The finale caught the mood immediately and the entire performance received a deserved ovation, which is too infrequently offered in appreciation for subtlety.


◊ Our profile of Tomoki Sakata, 19, Japan

◊ Review of Preliminary Recital Phase I

◊ Review of Preliminary Recital Phase II

◊ You can see quick links to the reviews of the other semifinalists here Thanks For Reading

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Cliburn Semifinals: Tomoki Sakata
Reviews of the semifinal performances by the 19-year-old Japanese pianist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Second round added.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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