In Bristol James Lisney’s Endgame I takes the audience on a voyage of discovery

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Endgame I – Schubert, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin: James Lisney (piano), St George’s, Bristol. 13.10.2019. (ECH)

James Lisney (c) Suzie Maeder

Schubert – Impromptu in C, D899/1
Haydn – Piano Sonata in C major, Hob.XVI:50
Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109
Chopin – Nocturnes, Op.62

James Lisney is an extremely accomplished artist. In between masterfully portraying extremes of emotion on the piano, he makes the audience feel at ease with informative and humorous comments on the repertoire. This may sound trivial, but in fact makes an enormous difference; if you are relaxed, you are much more likely to engage with the music. And, predisposed to its effects, the mind can wander freely for the duration of each piece, before returning to the room having undergone a voyage of discovery.

This is what Lisney is really good at: the journey of the music. The practical aspect of the score is ultimately always subsidiary to the feelings it creates, and he understands this. That is why, in the opening Schubert piece – Impromptu in C, D899/1 – his left and right hands were at very different dynamic levels, effortlessly separating the melody from the harmony. This established a precedent for the rest of the recital, in which Lisney kept a tight control of volume.

Crucially, too, he managed to perform the Haydn in an entirely different tone, accounting for the separate eras in which the composers worked. The question of whether the musician appreciates the historical changes in performance practice over the centuries is an important one – and Lisney certainly does. But he also appreciates each composer’s personality. In the first movement of Haydn’s Sonata in C, Hob. XVI/50, he brought out Haydn’s comedic side through trills, speed, and a light touch that enabled him to move between registers with ease. The second movement was well-paced, and the third was played with terrific energy. Haydn is often overlooked in favour of Mozart, but Lisney knows how to give him the weight he deserves.

Next came one of Beethoven’s beasts, the Sonata in E Op. 109. This particular sonata is one of his most daunting, containing the monster third movement: an essay on the ‘theme and variations’ form of composition. There was a clear change of character from the Haydn, as Lisney championed Beethoven’s intensity – surely the defining aspect of his music. The opening of the final movement would have had a greater effect, however, had he paused beforehand. But this did not take away from the overall performance, which was stunning.

Chopin’s Nocturnes Op. 62 required a very different kind of playing. As the repertoire had evidently moved from the late classical period into the burgeoning romantic, Lisney changed his tune again, as Chopin’s enchanting spirit flowed out of him. This time he left suitable pauses between musical sections and played in a lovely legato fashion as is appropriate for this composer.

The final instalment of the afternoon was Schubert’s Sonata in C, D958. Similar to the first Schubert piece, Lisney displayed excellent control of each hand at separate volumes simultaneously and did well to play the bass louder when it needed to be. His performance had lots of character and was very animated. It demonstrated painstaking practice.

Overall, James Lisney gave a breathtaking interpretation of some of the last works of the great composers. Readers should look out for the next concert in the Endgame series in Bristol on 5 February 2020.

Edward Christian-Hare

For more about James Lisney click here.

And for Robert Beattie’s interview with James Lisney click here.