No, this isn’t another complete piano sonata cycle. At least not yet. I recently picked up the first volume of a projected complete cycle by this Japanese pianist. It contains the Op 2 sonatas and was recorded in 2003, and it is only disc I’ve been able to find at Western retailers. The cycle will be complete next year, so I figured this disc can serve as a taster. If it’s good, I’ll consider the rest of the cycle – but most likely after the whole thing is released in box-set form. So I decided to give Ms Nakamichi a shot. Who knows, maybe she’s it – maybe she’s the one to unlock all of Beethoven’s secrets. Whatever the case may be, I certainly needed to listen, I thought.

Who is Ms Nakamichi, you may be wondering? Well, apparently she’s one of BMG’s at least reasonably hot properties in Japan. She’s been recording for years and has recorded a decent chunk of the standard repertoire – with Schumann and Chopin the most recorded. Beyond that, she won various contests in the 80s and studied in Japan, the US, and Germany. But how does she play? Well . . .

The first sonata opens most promisingly. Nakamichi adopts a nice pace to open – not too quick and not too slow – and she displays a fine, nuanced touch filled with color. She also possesses a fine rhythmic drive and can play with substantial weight and authority. The second movement seems to reaffirm the positive impressions of the first movement, though here she plays slowly and with a remarkably varied touch, with many gradations between p and pp. She also deftly uses pauses and sustains to create splendid aural effects. The third movement starts off a bit slower than ideal, but Nakamichi keeps everything well under control, with nary a note or gradation out of place. This is what becomes her most notable trait: Control. The fourth movement reinforces this. While the concluding Prestissimo opens reasonably quickly and displays some nice loud passages, it is all very much controlled. Some may find it too fussy or rigid in a few places. But as an overall conception it does work quite nicely. But keep the word “control” in mind for the other two sonatas.

The second sonata again boasts an extremely well judged opening, with very clear articulation and a lighter feel. Think control, though. It never once sounds free; it’s all very purposefully played. Sometimes, nearer the end of the movement, that might become a bit distracting to some. Something else may be a bit distracting to some: length. Nakamichi observes every repeat in this disc. The whole thing comes in at 79’, and the opening movement here stretches to just shy of 11’. Even I found the material a bit thin to observe every repeat. Moving to the Largo: it definitely sounds slow – though not sluggish – but I can’t really say it sounds appassionato anywhere. Nakamichi really emphasizes the slowness, almost to the point of the breaking the musical line, though she never does breach it. She more than compensates with her beautiful tone and precise control. Again, control. The Scherzo is generally lighter and quicker, though even here Nakamichi almost tips over into excess slowness a couple times. The concluding Rondo? Yep, control. It’s not ideally free, nor is it especially quick, though there is some notable power to be heard a couple minutes in, and her precision, finely graded tone and dynamics, and overall serious approach do make this sonata a success.

The final sonata more or less continues on in a similar fashion. The piece opens strongly, as the other two do, though she does allow herself to rip into the piece after a couple dozen seconds. Correction, she plays loud and fast, but always under control. Perhaps she loses focus a bit once or twice nearer the end, but really, it’s quite effective. The Adagio is likewise similar to the preceding slow movements – it’s slow, tests the musical line, sounds a bit blocky at times, and though not fluid, per se, it is beautiful and precise. The Scherzo offers one time where she plays fast and strong throughout, and the concluding movement is actually relatively standard in conception. The tempi are all well judged, and the piece is high-spirited, if always under control.

So, how to sum up? Well, I like it. She doesn’t match up to my favorites in any of the works, and her approach, while admittedly potentially off-putting to some, is actually fine with me. It’s serious. It’s devoted. It’s, well, idealized. It’s as though Ms Nakamichi carefully sculpts or crafts each work, each movement, hell, each note to meet some musicological or ideological ideal. Beethoven as marmoreal, musical demigod, if you will. I like that. But not everyone else will. Even though I like it, I think I can wait until she’s done to buy the complete cycle. I see no need to pay the high prices (2500 yen each) to buy the individual discs. I do believe I see the need to hear more, though.

SOTA sound.