Canada Bach, Beethoven, Chopin: Denis Brott (cello), Jan Lisiecki (piano), Pollack Hall, McGill University, Montréal, 13.6.2017. (LV)
Bach – Partita No. 3 in A minor BWV 827
Beethoven – 7 Variations on a Theme from The Magic Flute for piano and cello, WoO 46; Sonata for piano and cello in C major Op.102 No.1
Chopin – Sonata for cello and piano in G Minor Op.36
Through its 22 years, the driving force of the Montréal Chamber Music Festival has been its founding director Denis Brott. The Festivals have been fueled by rosters of world-class musicians – quartets like Calidore, Dover, and Emerson – and the next generation represented by winners of the Canada Council for the Arts’ Musical Instrument Bank competition, who play free lunchtime concerts during the week and a mini-marathon of string ensemble music on the Festival’s last Sunday afternoon.
In the process, Brott has morphed into being an institution himself, building support in the process of creating a unique national arts resource as solid and tangible as any of the new museums on Sherbrooke Street. Meanwhile, his own cello playing has fallen away from the high public visibility it held when he was one of Gregor Piatigorsky’s most prized students, who caught the fire in his mentor’s belly for making music at the highest levels in pursuit of impossible dreams.
Among the many impossible dreams he accomplished is Brott’s highly ranked experience with the complete Beethoven quartets, both recorded and live, when he was a member of the Orford Quartet alongside Andrew Dawes, Kenneth Perkins, and Terence Helmer. With its idiosyncratic technical challenges as gatekeepers to its musical rewards, the cycle represents the rarefied goal and summit of every cellist’s art, and so it has been for Brott. It must have had special meaning when he selected the theme for this year’s Festival, “Beethoven: Passion Romantique.”
For his Wednesday night recital with the young Canadian Polish pianist Jan Lisiecki, whose fame has been made with Chopin, Brott chose Beethoven and Chopin. Lisiecki opened the concert with Bach, perhaps as a nod to a cellist for whom solo Bach has always been the ultimate source.
The evening, however, centered around the two Beethoven pieces for cello and piano. The first was the sweetest of his three variations sets for cello and piano, on a love duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute; the other was the least sweet of his five sonatas, number one from his defiant Op.102 set. It is an emotional range that few cellists dare willingly to explore alone, and fewer still with an audience, and yet it was a range and an intensity that Brott identifies with. Like Papageno in the opera, he bubbled over with youthful imagination and ardor, catching the slower lyrical moments hinting at deeper love with special poignancy. Lisiecki followed him with affection and a sense of fun.
Where the Variations are all about happiness and delight, the Op.102 No.1 Sonata is comparable in difficulty to the late piano sonatas. It is awkwardly episodic, secretive, and lyrical; its torrent of extraordinary moments are strung together across an opaque emotional infrastructure seemingly designed to bend the performers to its creative will. Chronologically (and musically in many ways), it lives between two piano sonatas: the happy Op.101 in A major and the gigantic Op.106 in B-flat major, the Hammerklavier. When Brott and Lisiecki brought Beethoven’s more intimate but still mighty piano and cello sonata to its gruff, uncompromising end, and the audience stood up and cheered, they were cheering for the composer and Brott, and perhaps for the Festival as well.
After intermission, the duo returned in Chopin’s Cello Sonata, which includes a Largo third movement that is unutterably beautiful. Considering that the Sonata’s last three movements were premiered on the last concert Chopin ever played, the experience of hearing the sonata is always tinged with sadness. Underlined by the Brott’s eloquence and ferocity, and with Lisiecki making pure poetry out of his every bar, the effect was of transcendent legacy.
There had been more than a touch of transcendent legacy in Lisiecki’s opening, Bach’s A minor Partita BWV827. He was clearly enchanted by the wide open spaces between the notes, expressive marks and speed indications Bach wrote on paper, and the sounds the composer expected to emerge. The enormously wonderful fantasy Lisiecki conjured up was Bach through the lens of a 21st-century pianist – a pianist whose Chopin is about losing himself in his incomparable technique and youthful, romantic heart. As it turns out, like his Bach.