Saori Haji’s Neglected Recital Disc

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RAVEL: Jeau d’eau. Le tombeau de Couperin. DEBUSSY: Images Book I (excerpts): Reflets dans l’eau; Hommage à Rameau; Mouvement. CHOPIN: Ballade No. 1 in g min. / Saori Haji, pno / Koberacs KRS462

Saori Haji is a young pianist who has not merely flown under the radar of most classical lovers; except in her native Japan, she is scarcely known at all, yet she is an outstanding interpreter, particularly of French music, and this includes the more demanding scores of Henri Dutilleux in addition to the standard Ravel and Debussy fare represented on this CD.

Although it was released in 2015, this CD is so rare that the only way I learned about it was from the artist herself, who contacted me on Facebook and sent me sound files to listen to. The only place you can find it online is on the HMV.CO website, where it is selling for ¥2,934, which converts to $25.69 in U.S. currency, but the artistic quality of this disc is so high that I felt compelled to review it here.

There are two features to Haji’s playing that immediately grabbed my attention: 1) her varied keyboard touch, which alternates between a gentle caress and powerful delineation of the music, and 2) her wonderful sense of musical structure. Nothing she plays is either routinely batted out in an insensitive reading or turned into merely “pretty” music, although of course the scores of the French impressionists lend themselves to such a reading. Haji not only loves the music she plays but also thinks her interpretations through. Indeed, in the French impressionist music on this CD I find her playing to be much closer to that of the brilliant Michael Korstick than to the often mannered playing of Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The pearl-like quality of Haji’s touch, tempered by moments of powerful playing when the music calls for it. is utterly fascinating, even hypnotic. There is nothing precious or self-conscious about her approach; all of the music flows like a stream, taking in the smooth and the craggy moments with equality. It is almost as if the music is creating itself from the keyboard without intervention. Listen, for instance, to how well she captures the loping syncopations in “Forlane” from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin; I’ve never heard it played this well in my life.

Her keyboard touch may indeed be quite delicate at times, but it is never soft, mushy or boring, as is so often the case with too many modern pianists. Every phrase is bound, and leads from one to the next like a string of pearls. If I had to compare her to one great pianist from the past, it would be Clara Haskil. At times, Haji uses a subtle rubato to give the music a slightly looser rhythmic feel, and this, too plays to the music’s strengths. Listen, for instance, to how well she plays the “Rigaudon” from this same Ravel suite, and the concluding “Toccata” really sparkles. And in her performance of “Reflets dans l’eau” from Debussy’s Images, you can almost see the water sparkling in the sunlight before your very eyes.

Because Haji’s skilled hands delineate the music in this arresting manner, one must assume that her mind also absorbs it like a sponge, picking up every large or small detail in the scores she plays and mentally fitting them together like a master weaver creating a piece of fabric. What she does is both deeply felt and musically exacting at the same time, and it’s a shame that she is not better known.

Even more surprising to me, she can even make the generally sappy, over-sentimental music of Chopin sound interesting. Her performance here of the Ballade No. 1 is played at the proper pace, yet there is no sentimentality, no pathos or bathos in her playing. It thus communicates with the listener as pure music, not as some overly-Romantic piece of mush. Oh, how I wish that most pianists who play Chopin nowadays would take her lead!

If you like the pieces on this CD as much as I do, you absolutely must hear her play them, but although she does have videos up on YouTube they are primarily of the music of Schumann and Dutilleux, thus you’ll need to bite the bullet and buy her CD, at least as a download, online.

Trust me, it’s worth it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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