Pianist Jan Lisiecki, 22, has had a spectacular rise to fame — he made his first recording in Poland at the age of 14, playing the two Chopin Piano Concertos with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Howard Shelley (NIF CCD 200) — and today enjoys an international reputation. Born in Calgary of Polish descent, it could be that this heritage has made him especially authoritative in the music of Chopin.
Lisiecki is now under exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and his latest release is also all-Chopin. For Lisiecki fans, this is another winner, although it must be said that the selected repertoire is not representative of Chopin’s best work.
Above all else, Chopin was a pianist and a composer who wrote for the piano. While he wrote six works for piano and orchestra, they all date from 1827-30 when he was only in his late teens. Chopin never showed much interest in writing for orchestra – he wrote no symphonies or symphonic pieces without piano – and his six works for piano and orchestra show little aptitude for it. That is especially true of the four pieces on this CD, in which the orchestra is largely confined to providing brief introductory material, unobtrusive background, and punctuation at appropriate moments. I really feel for Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański; conducting these works must have been a thankless job, as these short pieces are all about the piano and, in this case, Jan Lisiecki.
The young Canadian makes the most of his star turns with playing that is technically dazzling; furthermore, while projecting the virtuosity that Chopin built into the music to show off his own talents and wow the crowds, he is also sensitive to what he calls Chopin’s “bel canto style.” While Lisiecki can toss off a proliferation of notes at top speed, he also takes the time to shape phrases and to maintain a singing line when required.
Perhaps the best piece on the CD is the Rondo à la Krakowiak in F major Op. 14. Here, the orchestral accompaniment is allowed to become something more than musical wallpaper, and harmonically the work is more interesting than most of the others. The “Krakowiak” is actually a syncopated dance in duple time said to have originated in Krakow. Chopin’s Krakowiak tune is catchy and charming.
Chopin’s variations on the Don Giovanni-Zerlina duet, “Là ci darem la mano,” is also memorable for the composer’s resourcefulness in melodic variation. The second last variation resembles one of Chopin’s own Nocturnes, and the last movement is turned into a Polonaise.
In addition to the four pieces for piano and orchestra on this CD, Lisiecki throws in an encore piece for solo piano, the Nocturne in c sharp minor Op. posth. Although it is marked “Lento con gran espressione,” Lisiecki’s performance comes across as somewhat deadpan and clunky.
Jan Lisiecki will soon (May 4, 2017) be appearing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) under Peter Oundjian in a performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto at Roy Thomson Hall. Later that month, he will appear as featured artist in the same work on the TSO’s European tour.
The orchestra featured on this recording is the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, based in Hamburg, which used to be known simply as the “NDR Symphony Orchestra”, or North German Radio Symphony Orchestra. The use of this rather unwieldy new name has to do with the fact that the orchestra’s new home is the Elbphilharmonie, a spectacular new concert hall built on the top floor of an existing building.
The CD booklet includes some photos of the new hall, none of which, unfortunately, give us any sense of the novelty of the building and its location. In fact, one of the photos, a shot of Lisiecki playing his grand piano on a Hamburg dock with a shipload of containers in the background, borders on the absurd. And in spite of the fact that all the photos in the booklet are of Hamburg and the new Elbphilharmonie, the recording was not made there, but in NDR’s Rolf-Liebermann-Studio.
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