Etsko Tazaki creates her own legacy at the piano keys

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

If you were a musician and your death was imminent, what piece of music would you like to cover before you die? Maybe you’d want to play a Sex Pistols track on the guitar, or perhaps try mastering a trumpet solo by Dizzy Gillespie?

Pianist Etsko Tazaki asked herself this question and answered it. She’ll be performing masterpieces by 19th-century composers — Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt — at a recital this weekend in Tokyo.

It won’t be an impossible feat for the 77-year-old musician. She has, after all, done something similar before. Tazaki completed a challenging three-part series of recitals titled “Legacy — The Last Piano Works of Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert,” which she first performed in 1997, after recovering from an illness that temporarily paralyzed the left side of her body. After tackling “Legacy” again in 2015, she started to think about what it meant to leave a legacy of her own.

“I felt a sense of accomplishment performing such philosophical pieces by the great German composers,” she says, “but I felt like I wanted to do more, something different.”

That’s how she came up with the plan for “Love and Emotional Conflict — The Masterpieces of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt.” Amid questions of legacy and death, however, Tazaki says of her picks, “I simply chose them because I love them.”

It has taken Tazaki several decades to reach a stage in her career where she can perform any piece she likes. She studied at The Julliard School in New York in the 1960s and made her orchestral debut at Carnegie Hall in 1972. She performed Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Georg Solti in 1979 and gained international recognition.

“In my 30s and 40s, I was so busy that I didn’t have enough time to really absorb each piece,” says Tazaki. “Most young unknown performers just have to adjust to that pace, but I felt uncomfortable performing like a machine.”

Tazaki considered giving up her career as a professional pianist, but a fateful trip to Switzerland in the mid-’80s changed her mind. On the same evening she arrived in Zurich, her friend took her to a small concert where an opera singer performed Schubert’s “Winter Journey” song cycle. Tazaki was so moved that the following day she began to provide accompaniment on the piano for the tenor’s singing. Before long, their collaboration developed into small local shows, and Tazaki decided not to quit.

“The stay in Switzerland was a turning point,” she says. “When I returned to New York two years later, I was able to do performances at my own pace”

After living in New York for almost 30 years, Tazaki returned to Japan in the ’90s and moved to the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains in Yamanashi Prefecture, an area that reminded her of the landscapes she used to see in Switzerland. However, just as she was settling into her new home, she fell sick and suffered partial paralysis. The illness, she says, was “perhaps because I was freed from the longtime strain of living in New York.”

The paralysis made it impossible for Tazaki to play the piano but, surprisingly, she felt relieved to be able to take a break from performing.

“At that time, I was enthralled by my rehabilitation,” she says. “Being able to make a functional recovery, step by step, felt rather exciting.”

She performed at an already-scheduled concert six months after she got sick with only a slight alteration in the program, which had been decided before she fell ill.

“I thought I’d better not cancel the concert, since I was in the process of finding joy in being a pianist again,” Tazaki says.

After that concert, Tazaki decided to re-train herself from scratch “by gathering the most difficult pieces that I learned when I was a student and practicing them again.” The “Legacy” series was the result.

The upcoming recital is actually the second part of “Love and Emotional Conflict.” It will focus on Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor and four Mazurkas, Schumann’s “Kreisleriana Op. 16” and Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage — Second Year: Italy.”

“Chopin composed this Nocturne at 17,” says Tazaki, “He had such a melancholy nature. Schumann’s best piano pieces were composed when he fell in love with renowned pianist Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann, after the pair married). He composed as if writing love letters to her.”

As for Liszt, Tazaki plans to perform the second suite of “Years of Pilgrimage,” which is comprised of seven parts: three rarely performed pieces, the three operatic Petrarch sonnets and the “After Reading Dante” finale.

“I want to present them to the audience as one piece,” she says. “It’s really a great work.”

Tazaki says she has noticed that, in general, the Japanese approach to classical music is too focused on proper technique. While that’s important, she thinks people should listen with their hearts a little more.

“It’s like when wine was introduced here from Europe,” she says. “People were so focused on getting the proper blend of ingredients correct, they didn’t taste it and come to conclusions based on their own senses. So they’ll judge a wine by its price or the brand’s reputation.”

When she looks at a music score, Tazaki gets a sense of how she wants the music to sound — “I absorb it” — and then trains her hands and body to achieve her desired result. But, she says, “every day it’s still trial and error.”

“Love and Emotional Conflict — The Masterpieces of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt” takes place at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan recital hall in Taito Ward on Oct. 13 (2 p.m. start; ¥5,000, 03-5790-5560). For more information, visit www.camerata.co.jp or www.etsko.jp.