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Review by David Richards
Toronto ON March 4th 2019
Jan Lisiecki delivers the dark side of Romanticism in a soulful performance
Deutsche Grammophon recording artist Jan Lisiecki; Photo credit: Christoph Köstlin
There wasn’t an empty seat in Koerner Hall yesterday afternoon for the Invesco Piano Series concert featuring the twenty-three-year-old Canadian phenom, pianist Jan Lisiecki. In the introductory comments, Mervin Mehta, The Royal Conservatory’s Executive Director of Performing Arts, said that the hall had never been as full in its ten-year existence. Indeed, the piano was surrounded by extra seating on stage to accommodate the overflow.
In the six years since I first heard Lisiecki perform in Gananoque, he has matured into one of the world’s leading interpreters of piano music of the Romantic period. He is no longer the youthful, gangly, slightly awkward teenager trading good-humoured barbs with Eric Friesen, the host of Gananoque’s Studio S summer concert series. In that concert, seemingly so long ago for a young person, he sat down and whizzed through the Études of Chopin which he had earlier recorded for his first of five (so far) albums for Deutsche Grammaphon.
Yesterday’s recital was like a poetry reading, with the reader delivering every nuance of every word and line with each poem carrying the poet’s themes. Lisiecki played every note with the touch of a master, every musical line with thoughtful expressiveness. The program had both coherence and logic. His theme of “Night Music” had to be obvious to even the uninitiated listener. It was a daring program, not so much dependent on virtuosity, although there was plenty on display, but on the artistry in the quietude of a beautifully spun melodic line.
Lisiecki began with Fryderik Chopin’s Nocturnes Op. 55, No. 1 and No. 2. The gentleness of the first of these introduced the spirit of the entire concert. His rubato in each phrase carried the essence of Chopin’s poetry. Chopin urged his own students, “Be bolder, let yourself go more”, something Lisiecki has obviously taken to heart.
Robert Schumann’s 4 Nachtstücke, Op. 23 carried the theme forward. It was composed in a dark period of Schumann’s life. He had been taken to court by his future father-in-law and he had just learned of his brother’s death. I was struck by the simplicity of the familiar melody in the fourth of the set of pieces entitled “Einfach”.
The first half of the concert concluded with Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. Each of the three movements convey fantastical images inspired by Satan (Gaspard). One of the most demanding works in the piano repertory. Ravel described it as “three Romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity”. He actually set out to write something more difficult than anything Liszt or Balikirev had written. Don’t tell Jan Lisiecki. The technical wizardry demanded was hidden in the expressive playing.
Following intermission, the “Night Music” theme continued with the gloomy despondency of Rachmaninov’s Cinq morceaux de fantasie, op. 3 which included the ever popular (and hated by Rachmaninov) “Prélude in C sharp minor”. Lisiecki shed new insight into the three note descent figure that dominates this Prélude. It was devastatingly dark.
The program ended with more Chopin, another Nocturne, this time the incredibly sad Op. 72 no. 1 in E minor. It was followed by his Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, op. 20. Lisiecki brought the concert to its climactic conclusion with this dramatic work, full of virtuosity and frenzy, but still with its dark moments in the lyrical middle section.
It isn’t enough to say that Lisiecki played brilliantly. He gave the audience a musical lesson on Romantic music that poured from his soul for two hours. I heard this week that another Canadian pianist, Louis Lortie, had produced his 50th album on the Chandos label and had performed annually in a Montreal recital series for many years. We can only hope that Jan Lisiecki does the same for Toronto. Jan will be returning to Koerner Hall next year along with baritone Matthias Goerne on April 23, 2020. Also returning to Koerner Hall is Louis Lortie on January 26, 2020.
The next concert in the Invesco Piano Concert Series will feature Richard Goode in an all Beethoven program on Sunday April 7, 2019 at 3:00pm.