Review by David Richards
Toronto ON July 29th 2020
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Jan Lisiecki; Photo Credit: Interlude.hk
Jan Lisiecki performs live at Koerner Hall in its first concert since the pandemic began!
Last night, Koerner Hall hosted its first performance of any kind since the country was shut down at the onset of the pandemic. Not to worry however, it was a performance with no live audience. Jan Lisiecki came to perform for ticket holders and sponsors of five performances he had previously been forced to cancel. They were able to hear a live stream in real time. Festival of the Sound, The Thousand Islands Playhouse, Stratford Summer Music, Ottawa Chamberfest and Koerner Hall collaborated to bring Lisiecki to Toronto.
I have been skeptical of live stream concerts with the instability of internet connections, often poorly placed microphones and intrusive camera angles. Last night helped to win me over.
Lisiecki had cancelled performances in each of the above venues because of Covid-19 concerns. He had planned to perform at Koerner Hall with the famed German baritone, Matthias Goerne, and Beethoven concertos at each of the other venues. This was to have been Lisiecki’s year to celebrate Beethoven with numerous performances of all five Beethoven Concertos this past spring on both sides of the Atlantic.
Instead of a full schedule of major performances during the pandemic, Lisiecki settled in at home in Calgary with his parents. He certainly seemed prepared and rested for last night’s performance despite flying into Toronto yesterday morning with just enough time to go through a last-minute sound check before the concert.
His program was in a sense a tribute to Beethoven’s 250th birthday. He began with a dazzling performance of Rondo a capriccio Op. 129, (Rage over a Lost Penny). Many perform this work in a light-hearted manner as if Beethoven were laughing that someone could be so angry at losing a penny. Not so, Lisiecki. Beethoven was no spend-thrift. His rage certainly came through in Lisiecki’s interpretation of this barn-burner. It was Beethoven at his defiant best.
The remainder of the program included music by Mendelssohn and Chopin who both helped to raise money for a statue in Beethoven’s honour, Chopin by performing with Liszt in a benefit and Mendelssohn by composing Variations sérieuses Op. 54 the work which concluded last night's concert.
Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso in E major followed the Beethoven and this is where the concert turned into a true chamber program with delightful selections of what I would see as fitting for a house concert. Sitting (and relaxing) in my TV room with surround sound and large screen, it was as if he was playing just for me. The Mendelssohn had a lyric beauty and sense of optimism, ending with a flurry of octaves. It was followed by Six Songs without Words Op. 62, short vignettes of varying character that Lisiecki was indeed sensitive to. He found just the right spirit of each. The melodic lines sang with each note fitting into the larger phrases and each phrase melting into the whole of each song. The ‘moto perpetuo’ of the spinning wheel of No. 4, the sorrowful story within the music of No. 5, and the playfulness of the ‘Venetian Boat Song’ of No. 6 provided special moments.
Next came Chopin’s Nocturnes Op. 62, Nos. 1&2. There are few pianists in the world today who can match Lisiecki’s sense of Chopin. The beautifully spun melodies, wonderful sense of rubato and brilliant floriaturas that were never forced combined to make these extraordinary.
The concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, an oft-recorded work by many of the great performers of the last century. The seventeen variations each created a mood without resorting to the light-hearted Mendelssohn characteristics so attributed to the composer. This was music of real substance and virtuosity. Lisiecki did not disappoint.
Host Mervon Mehta created an intimate atmosphere by conversing with Lisiecki between works and returning following the concert to interview him on a range of topics. It was interesting to hear Lisiecki comment on his reluctance to perform in an empty hall. He likes to be spontaneous and to be responsive to the audience. Having a relationship with the audience is important to him. That is why he continues to return to Ontario each summer to perform in small venues such as those who collaborated in last night’s performance. Mehta also commented that his relationship and respect for his audience was indeed mutual and kept them returning to hear him perform year after year.
I remember hearing Lisiecki for the first time in a live performance in 2013 at the Thousand Islands Playhouse. We were on our boat in the Thousand Islands and heard about his performance at the last minute. Of course, the concert was sold out, but we asked to be on a waiting list. A few hours before it was to begin, we got a call saying we could sit on stage. It was an amazing experience to feel the music so close and personal. Last night, although not the same, had the feeling of being remarkably close. Perhaps there is a future in live streaming. My doubts about it were assuaged with last night’s performance; even when the pandemic is behind us and concert halls fully re-open, there may well be a place for it.