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CD review: Jan Lisiecki's big-label Mozart concertos a triumph

By John Terauds on April 16, 2012

Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki (Dave Pritchard photo).

Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 21 (Deutsche Grammophon)

I’ve been following Jan Lisiecki’s progress for three years now. Finally, with the release of this first big-label album, I think it’s safe to say that the now 17-year-old Calgarian (and current student at the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School) is Canada’s next great contribution to the world of classical piano.

This recording, made in January with Germany’s Bavarian Radio Symphony and conductor Christian Zacharias, features two of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s best-loved piano concertos, No. 20, in D minor, K. 466, and No. 21, in C Major, K. 467. Composed and premiered a month apart in 1785, these pieces express all the beautiful melody and deep drama of Mozart’s operas in instrumental music.

Lisiecki, confident at the keyboard, takes on the role of singer, colouring and shaping each musical phrase with great care. Soloist and orchestra are of one mind throughout these performances, giving the music strong momentum as well as a compelling inner glow. The pianist plays with an ease and assurance well beyond his teenage years.

Among this album’s many treats, Lisiecki has created his own, impressive cadenza for the C Major concerto, because he didn’t feel that any of the existing cadenzas adequately represented his overall conception of the work.

(In the third movement, he uses a cadenza written by pianist Paul Badura-Skoda. For the D minor piece, he uses Beethoven’s cadenzas in the first and third movements.)

There is so much more depth to the recorded performances compared to what I heard when Lisiecki played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra earlier this year, a couple of weeks after he’d finished the recording.

Lisiecki says that the choice of piano and the choice of venue make a huge difference in the overall result. His favourite evening eith the Toronto Symphony was their last, at the 1,100-seat George Weston Hall. “That’s a much better size hall for the music of Mozart,” he asserts.

Lisiecki’s first album, a set of Chopin piano concertos released two years ago, was only intended as a live-to-air radio broadcast. Lisiecki says he was reluctant to have his performance committed to disc, but conductor Howard Shelley convinced him that this was a fine record of a 13-year-old playing these works.

In turn, Lisiecki, conscious of his continuing evolution, describes the Mozart concertos as “Lisiecki when he was 16.”

He enjoyed the recording experience with Zacharias, in which, Lisiecki says, the piano and orchestra played nicely off each other.

“Mr. Zacharias and I agreed very much on what was going on in the work,” the pianist recalls. “We didn’t even disucss it particularly – and that’s been the case with most of the conductors I’ve worked with.

“I go and and I play for them, of course, because they need to know the tempi, etc, but we don’t discuss particular things and it always ends up working.

“The musical ideas get adjusted every time you play with somebody.,” Lisiecki concludes. “It’s always teamwork, It’s never one person or the other person.”

He is equally modest about his own efforts here.

“I don’t think this is about me; it’s about Mozart,” says Lisiecki. “I hope that because of it, people will continue listening to Mozart.”

Based on this disc, the answer is an emphatic, Yes. These concertos are among the most over-recorded and over-programmed in the classical repertoire, yet this young Canadian makes one want to listen to them over and over again.

For details on the disc, as well as audio samples, click here.

Here are some backgound videos released by Deutsche Grammophon:

John Terauds

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