From Mao to Mozart

Wed 14 Jun 2023

Pianist Mao Fujita tells Jessica Duchen why he’s excited to be playing five days of Mozart sonatas

When the young Japanese pianist Mao Fujita scooped the silver medal at the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow he was showered with high-profile engagements and rave reviews. Since then, the raves have shown no sign of abating. Of his recent Carnegie Hall debut, The New York Times commented that 'waves of airy filigree, beautifully formed and finished, emerged in almost uninterrupted streams for his two-hour solo recital'.

Yet while Tchaikovsky Competition prizewinners often seem expected to focus on virtuoso Romantic warhorses, Fujita has other priorities. This July, he brings to Wigmore Hall the complete cycle of the Mozart piano sonatas, spread across five programmes in five days, interspersing the sonatas with choice selections from the composer’s shorter piano works.

Fujita was born in Tokyo and is the second son of two doctors. 'I started to play the piano because my older brother was having lessons and I wanted to try it,' he reveals. He made rapid progress and after the family moved to Nagano – 'a snowy city where there is nothing to do in winter except ski and play the piano!' – he would travel at weekends to the capital by bullet train, two hours each way, for his lessons. 'From the age of 16 I felt this was too long, and I went to study at the Tokyo Music University. When I turned 18, I was so happy that at last I could qualify to enter some international competitions.'

For Fujita, blessed with a sunny and enthusiastic disposition, the pressures of these high-profile contests were offset by the chance to see the world. 'I had not been outside Japan before, so the Clara Haskil Competition [which he won in 2017] was my first chance to see Switzerland, and the Tchaikovsky Competition was my first visit to Moscow. I went to as many museums as I could. I was so lucky – I could participate in the competitions and then go on vacation!' It’s possible that his relaxed, enthusiastic attitude paid dividends in his playing. 'What a joy for the ears!' wrote Bachtrack’s reviewer for his Rachmaninov concerto in Moscow.

The Mozart cycle is becoming one of Fujita’s signature projects: he has already recorded it, besides performing it at the Verbier Festival ('We had two weeks for five concerts') and in Japan, 'spreading the whole cycle across two years!' For Wigmore Hall, however, he is tackling the project on consecutive days. 'I'm so excited to play in such a wonderful, historical and visionary hall,' he says.

His experience at the Clara Haskil Competition was an important spur towards the cycle: 'The competition is very focused on the classical period of repertoire, and I learned a lot of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven for it.' After the Tchaikovsky Competition he had numerous engagements to perform Russian repertoire, 'but I wanted to do something different.' At this point, however, the pandemic struck; Fujita, along with most other musicians, found his concert engagements evaporating due to lockdown. True to form, he made the most of it. 'I had a chance to concentrate on the Mozart sonatas and take the opportunity to learn them all'.

'Most of the sonatas were written when Mozart was around my own age,' he notes. 'The first were from when he was 17 or 18. I was 20 when I started working on them, and I’m now 24.' There’s a heartwarming sense that this youthful quality helps Fujita to identify with the music.

Experimenting with the fortepiano has taught him some valuable lessons. 'When I went to Vienna I had the chance to play Mozart’s fortepiano,' he says, 'and I learned a lot about tone quality and how to make the music attractive within the more limited range of the instrument. Now I play the sonatas on a modern concert grand, but the sound quality is important to me. Mozart’s piano was more brilliant than we might expect, but also more sensitive.'

The question of adding idiomatic improvised ornamentation was challenging at first. Fujita readily admits that he, like most young classical musicians, is used to sticking to the notes on the page. 'I read a book by Mozart’s father, Leopold Mozart, which shows how to play the ornaments, especially the trills. And now I’m studying in Berlin with Kirill Gerstein, who used to play jazz before he changed to classical, so he knows all about improvising! I’ve learned so much from him.'

He has also consulted Robert Levin, who recently became the first pianist to record all the Mozart sonatas on Mozart’s own piano. 'I had the chance to have a masterclass with him when I was 18; I played the A minor Sonata K310, and it was a very wonderful lesson for me.' This sonata, a turbulent and deeply personal work, was written soon after the death of Mozart’s mother in Paris and is one of the cycle’s masterpieces.

'When I went to Vienna I had the chance to play Mozart’s fortepiano and I learned a lot about tone quality. His piano was more brilliant than we might expect, but also more sensitive'

Fujita points to several more that he feels stand out from the crowd. 'I love the early ones, like K281 in B flat, which is fascinating: this is the first time he uses the rondo form in the sonatas, and it contains such variety, everything on the spectrum from darkness to brightness. No. 9 in D major, K311, which I played in Carnegie Hall, is wonderful – it’s very special writing that looks so simple, yet sounds absolutely magical. But my favourite is K533/494 in F major: a very intimate sonata, so beautiful, and especially the wonderful rondo, which starts elegantly in the upper voices and progresses through so many elements until it ends at the bottom of the keyboard.'

Rather than taking a chronological approach, Fujita has planned his programmes for maximum contrast. First I thought about how the concerts would end: they should finish with the most meaningful pieces.' In the first recital he opens with the Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman’ – also known as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ – as if starting at the very beginning of our musical awareness. 'In the second half, I begin with the B minor Adagio, a beautiful piece from late Mozart that seems full of his struggles with himself, and then the A minor Rondo and the Sonata in A minor – so there is plenty of variety and contrast.'

The second concert begins with K281, 'and next I play K331, with the famous Turkish Rondo. Its first movement is a set of variations; this is one sonata that is remarkable for including no sonata-form movement.' After the interval, he places the C major ‘Sonata Facile’ – in reality, anything but facile – alongside the Don Giovanni-esque world of the Fantasia and Sonata in C minor. He continues to follow the principle through the subsequent three concerts; each programme becomes a mini-narrative in its own right about the nature of the sonatas and, indeed, about Mozart himself.

Perhaps Fujita will become a pianist who loves to embrace one-composer cycles: he is also tackling the complete Beethoven violin sonatas with the violinist Marc Bouchkov. In the meantime, though, he is thrilled to be coming to London again. 'I’ve played several times at the Royal Festival Hall, and the audiences are wonderful, so friendly and kind.' But what is he looking forward to most? 'London has a lot of excellent Japanese restaurants!'

Mao Fujita performs Mozart Piano Sonatas every night at Wigmore Hall between Monday 10 - Friday 14 July 2023.
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This article first appeared in the The Score magazine, published three times a year and exclusively available to Friends of Wigmore Hall.