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Review: A Young Pianist Finds His Way to Carnegie Hall

The 24-year-old pianist Mao Fujita made his Carnegie Hall debut on Wednesday, shuffling onto the stage of Stern Auditorium, his demeanor unassuming and his back slightly hunched. When his fingers touched the keys, though, waves of airy filigree, beautifully formed and finished, emerged in almost uninterrupted streams for his two-hour solo recital.

Having released a recording of Mozart’s complete piano sonatas in the fall, Fujita began his recital with two pieces by that composer. Fujita’s genteel statement of the theme in the Nine Variations on a Minuet by J.P. Duport gave over quickly to rippling runs that would have felt too fast if not for his pearly tone. That exuberance carried over into Mozart’s Sonata in D Major, K. 311, and even at such speed, the music had buoyancy, like a kite held aloft in a breeze.

Fujita’s playing, gossamer without sacrificing the sturdy consonance of Mozart’s style, has a prettiness all its own. He plays through the ends of phrases, bringing them to a fine point with exquisitely shaped diminuendos, and maintains a clear yet shimmery tone.

Comparing the sonata with Fujita’s recorded version, I missed the cleanly delineated treatment of Mozart’s contrapuntal writing, which Fujita approached on the album with Bach-like clarity and independence of line. At Carnegie, Fujita’s left-hand parts sometimes sounded smeared — perhaps because their subtlety didn’t read in the hall — and there was a presentational quality to his playing, as though he were offering it to the public for judgment.

At times, Fujita didn’t connect profoundly with the composers on this largely safe program. Even in the most stylistically attuned hands, Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B Minor risks coming across as overwrought, and Fujita’s traversals of the keyboard sounded superficial rather than splashy. In Brahms’s Theme and Variations in D Minor, dedicated to Clara Schumann, for whom he pined, Fujita gestured at the piece’s muscularity by firmly articulating its chords, but the performance lacked depth of sound — and the sense of a body leaning into the keyboard to unburden an emotional weight. Still, placid passages in both pieces glinted.

Fujita didn’t linger over the harmonies of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 21, instead using them to propel himself forward, and something clicked in the last movement, a glimmering Agitato that he colored in shades of twilight. After laying down the final G minor chord with touching delicacy, he immediately jumped into a piece in the same key, Robert Schumann’s Second Piano Sonata.

Playing at furious speed, angsty and furtive, the melody peeking in and out view, Fujita seemed transformed. Where some pianists use the right-hand octaves to crown the motion of the first movement, Fujita dispatched them efficiently, as if they too were caught in the swirl of Schumann’s wildness. The audience clapped excitedly after the movement, either inspired by its feeling or thinking they were applauding the end of Clara’s Romances.

In his criticism and music, Schumann sometimes wrote in the style of two distinct personalities that he named Florestan and Eusebius, and Fujita handled the pendulum swings between them — spiraling tempestuousness on the one hand, starry serenity on the other — with purposefulness and direction in the final movement.

The pieces by the Schumanns would have been the recital’s highlight were it not for Fujita’s first encore, the opening Allegro from Mozart’s infectious “Sonata Facile.” Here, Fujita outdid his recording of this music and also the Mozart earlier in the program, trading the piece’s usual extroversion for beguiling interiority, with cheeky ornaments of his own devising and an approach to melody that, admittedly, might have been too free. The uniformly pretty tone was still there — but there was also the confidence of an artist who was sharing not only some music but something of himself with his audience.

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