Jan Lisiecki Finds Pianistic Splendour in the Morning

CanadaCanada Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Chopin: Jan Lisiecki (piano), Koerner Hall, Vancouver Academy of Music, Vancouver, 14.2.2018. (GN)

Jan Lisiecki © Mathias Bothor
Jan Lisiecki © Mathias Bothor

RavelGaspard de la Nuit
RachmaninoffMorceaux de fantasie Op.3
Chopin – Nocturne in E minor Op.72 No.1; Scherzo in B minor Op.20 No.1

It was an inspired idea for Vancouver’s Music in the Morning to sponsor this visit by Jan Lisiecki, one of Canada’s most celebrated young pianists and winner of Gramophone’s Young Artist of the Year award in 2013. The pianist had just performed a large portion of the current recital in Europe and, as he remarked, it was an interesting prospect to return to Canada to perform the ‘night music’ of Rachmaninoff and Ravel in the light of morning. Being a young star of the piano is exceedingly difficult these days: in virtually every case, some critics cite an artistic maturity far beyond the pianist’s years while others find merely technical brilliance – and Lisiecki weathered this storm of critical scrutiny early on. Having produced four CDs for Deutsche Grammophon since 2011 and giving over 100 concerts a year, one would have to regard this 22-year-old as very much a mature pianist, one from whom even the most seasoned listener can learn. He strikes the keys so cleanly and beautifully, articulates complex lines in such a balanced, transparent way, and has a lyrical projection in his playing as natural as his bravura finish. Most importantly, one sees real interpretative absorption and perspective in the end product.

Many young pianists enjoy the sheer power of Rachmaninoff’s writing, but it is not easy to climb into the composer’s emotional world or to get his sound right. Having witnessed Lisiecki’s finely-honed touch in earlier composers, I was impressed with both his absorption of style and his acute awareness of the rhapsodic/tempestuous balance in Rachmaninoff’s music. The Morceaux de fantasie are only the composer’s Op.3; nonetheless, they do include the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor. This was given a searching reading here, combining strong poetic impulse with its customary hammered proclamations. I liked the way Lisiecki could portray his runs as ‘torrents’ of notes, reflecting the composer’s unstoppable fall into despair. This is absolutely idiomatic, and other discerning Rachmaninoff pianists have recognized it as well. Moreover, he distilled the sense of melancholy perfectly in the Elegie and the Polichinelle, finding additional musical shape in the former and a telling rhapsodic pulse in the latter. Sophisticated tonal shading distinguished the Melody while the Serenade was a model of both clarity and sensitivity. There was never any lack of elemental weight when needed, and I thought all five pieces had a disarming freshness and immediacy.

The pianist has previously recorded Chopin’s Etudes, plus other works for piano and orchestra, and the composer has been his bread-and-butter since he was very young.  This brief sampling brought the Nocturne (Op.72 No.1) and the First Scherzo. The former was cunningly articulated, with a lovely sense of natural motion and a keen awareness of the symmetry between top and bottom voices. The Scherzo was individual with its formidable headlong attack at both the beginning and end, but this contrasted with a touching lyrical suspension in the songful B major theme in between. Virtuosity abounded but I always felt Lisiecki put his finger on the right emotions. The sparkle and sensitivity of his playing, coupled with its architectural strength and tonal elegance, fit the composer’s world admirably.

The most unusual interpretation was of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. While still very much a virtuoso piece in Lisiecki’s hands, its feeling was quite unlike any of the more capricious and/or shadowy performances inherited from the French tradition, Ivo Pogorelich, Steven Osborne and others. Perhaps because the hall was not good at projecting a real pianissimo, Ondine actually did appear to start very much in the light of day, yet it was the pianist’s patience in exposition and his sense of structural anchoring that stood out as things proceeded. One found less neurotic, mercurial motion, and less pronounced rubato and jagged shape; instead, more of a Lisztian flow emerged as details fell into place. But there was an additional ingredient: at the deliberate pace chosen, one noted the suspension of the stranger tonal and harmonic synergies of the work. This innovation somehow made the piece more abstract and modern, while the structural conscientiousness and flow made it more backward looking.

The unusual conjunction of styles perhaps stood out even more in Le Gibet, taken very slowly and imbued with more warm luminescence than disembodied chill. The bell continues to toll, but what a feast of strange harmonies hover over the warmer terrain – a different type of fantasy indeed. Lisiecki returned to a more anchored, big-boned structure in Scarbo, admirably challenging all its hurdles, but producing more clarity and drive than effervescence and twisting rubato. There was certainly a tonally resplendent quality to it all – and undeniably heaven-storming bravura towards the close. This was a very interesting and individual treatment of Gaspard.  Nonetheless, I do think it remains a work in progress for the artist: intriguing, yes, but it does not quite add up with the fullest sense of organic unity. I would also like to hear this performance in a less fulsome, and more open, acoustic.

The concert was an enrichening experience from beginning to end. One was entranced by the sheer beauty, balance and strength in Lisiecki’s pianism, yet what I liked most is that he differentiated the expressive worlds of the three composers so thoughtfully and found a radiant emotional voice for each.

Geoffrey Newman

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