Jan Lisiecki’s Chopin

ItalyItaly  Chopin: Jan Lisiecki (piano)  Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Sala Santa Cecilia.  Rome 28.05.2014 (JB)

He’s nineteen, Canadian of Polish parents,  tall, slender, blond, handsome, with more talent than he knows what to do with and the world at his feet with a DGG recording contract, two tours with Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra behind him and every major concert hall in the world awaiting him: the living legend is Jan Lisiecki, and to my shame, I’m hearing him for the first time tonight in an all-Chopin programme.

There is no mistaking his being a major talent.  But that said, one also has to add, hold it there.  There are moments in Chopin when the pianist has to carry this music forward; others when he has to let the music carry him.  Jan Lisiecki appears not to have noticed the difference; he often engages with one when he should be engaged with the other: pushing when he would give better by withholding and sometimes withholding when he ought to be more noticeably in the driving seat.  This is bizarre, because as I said, his talent is unquestionably great.  But for the moment, it is often unfocused.  A colleague in the Italian music press, agreeing with me said, But wouldn’t you expect this in a nineteen year old?  Point taken.

He began with the Great Op 18 Valse.  He has been listening carefully to the Horowitz recording.  And why not?  There is non finer.  But have non of his teachers told him learn  but don’t copy.  Too much of the time this sounded like an imitation –and not a very convincing imitation.   Oh dear!  My worst fears were aroused.  Are we in for an evening of musical imitations?

The first of the twenty-four Preludes put my mind at ease: Agitato  in C major.  Here was a piece he had made entirely his own: a nicely invoked, sweet turmoil.  Memorable.

But can he keep this outstanding musical personality on display?  The Preludes call for a quick-change artist; many last for less than a minute; all of them move into different worlds.  A Schubert Song Cycle would be easy in comparison.  And anyway, isn’t it unreasonable to expect a nineteen year old to have at his finger tips the complex nuances of fast-moving Chopin sentiments?

That unique sweet turmoil made another welcome appearance in the Vivace  no 3 in G.  The intervening no 2 –Lento  in A minor was a little stark, lacking in that veiled mystery which Chopin calls for.  No 10 in  sharp minor was altogether too spiky and in number 16 –Presto con fuoco, the fire was so menacing as to displace the presto.  No. 23 –Moderato  in F, had a beautiful liquidly flow.  The final no 24 –Allegro appassionato  was a bit rough and had him striving for a sound which he didn’t manage to achieve.  In fact, he told  a colleague from Italian radio at the interval he found great difficulty hearing the sound he was making.

Oscar Wilde used to say that in listening to Chopin’s Nocturnes he felt that he was being made to pay for sins that he hadn’t committed.  He might have got something else from Mr Lisiecki’s performance of the Op 9 three Nocturnes.  The boy doesn’t take us through a sweatshop.  All three were exquisitely poised.

In number 1 –Larghetto  in B flat minor- his hands were perfectly balanced and independent of expression, with a fine right hand cantabile.  He took the Andante  of no 2 in B flat without sentiment, nicely cushioning the sound.  No3 –Allegretto in B, was simply and charmingly stated.

The three valses of Op 64 fared fairly well too.  The D flat (no 1) was a sheer delight: it sounded like a young pianist having fun.  The problem with no 2 in C sharp minor was that it wasn’t Tempo giusto  as Chopin requests, it was pulled around to the point of being pulled to pieces.  But he made up with a fine matter-of-fact delivery of no 3 in B flat.

The Andante Spinato and Polonaise Op 22 was a good choice for a climatic ending to the programme.  He has well understood that in the Andante the left hand has to be the motor of the piece with the right delivering the speak-easy song.  It would have been better if the hands were also together: the left was often disturbingly ahead of the right.  His delivery of the final bars of the Andante as though from a distant chamber, was enchanting.  Some of the rhythmic cells got clipped in the Polonaise but the double octaves were very impressive.

He then returned to great applause and announced in a loud, clear voice in English that he would like to play just one further Chopin piece, the C sharp posthumous Nocturne.  This was sheer perfection in every sense –dynamics, tempo, pacing, tone and poise.

Jack Buckley

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