Review: Heady mix of youth and experience mark Jan Lisiecki's homecoming concert

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By Kenneth DeLong

It has been roughly five years since Calgary-native Jan Lisiecki last performed in Calgary. During these years the world has seen the disruption of concert life because of COVID, but it also has seen the flowering of Lisiecki’s international career as an important concert artist. Lisiecki has established himself as one of today’s most sought-after pianists: he concertizes all over the world; he has made prize-winning recordings; and the list of the venues in which he has performed include many of the world’s Grade A concert halls. He has also given concerto performances with most of the major European conductors. It is an impressive record, to say the least.

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To no great surprise, Lisiecki’s solo recital at Mount Royal Conservatory’s Bella Concert Hall was sold out, every possible extra seat added for the event. As an event, the recital had about it the atmosphere of a celebration — a celebration of fine pianism, of course, but also a wider sense of happiness at the return of a native son. Mount Royal Conservatory was, in fact, one of the earliest performing venues for Lisiecki, even before he was a teenager.

Still only 28 years old, Lisiecki has now more than 15 years of experience on the concert stage. His concert at the Bella was therefore not that of an up-and-coming pianist, but of a mature, established artist. This heady mix of youth and experience formed the through-line for this much-enjoyed, very fine concert.

The program was devoted to preludes. As Lisiecki pointed out in his notes, preludes are fundamentally anticipatory in nature, embodying the idea of a preparation for the “thing to come.” However, as the genre evolved historically, preludes increasingly took on the spirit of fragile, short moments that evoke, but do not present, bigger things — brief emotional moments that leave an emotional residue or perfume.

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Nowhere is this notion of a prelude more evident than in the set of 12 Preludes, Op. 28, by Chopin which formed the second half of the concert. Although the first half also consisted of preludes, as a group they performed the function of being a prelude to the Chopin preludes of the second half. The effect of this was to convey, more generally, the range of musical ideas that composers before and after Chopin thought to be part of the genre before turning the musical core of the idea.

Rather unusually, Lisiecki began the evening with the “Raindrop” Prelude from the Chopin preludes he performed in the second half of the concert. By performing this work first, Lisiecki set the fundamental tone and manner of performance and music for the evening: the prism through which the other works of the evening might be understood, either as continuance or as contrast.

In this way, Lisiecki put before the audience his “persona” as a pianist for the evening, the persona of a reflective musical poet rather than a barnstorming virtuoso. To stretch the image a trifle, it was as if Lisiecki offered himself a pianistic James Bond — in this case, Goldfinger: The Man with the Velvet Touch (as Shirley Bassey did not sing).

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Virtually all the pieces chosen demand a beguiling singing tone and the utmost in refinement of touch, a quality which Lisiecki possesses to a remarkable degree. It is this ability, perhaps, that is a central source of his success as a pianist, an ability notable in his playing from his earliest years. This mixing of youth and refinement dominated the first half. Many of the preludes performed were very early compositions by prodigy composers — composers prescient in their musical maturity at the age of 20 or even younger. These included preludes by the 18-year-old Karol Szymanowski, the 20-year-old Olivier Messiaen, and the 21-year-old Henryk Gorecki.

Both as music and as performance, these were among the most successful works of the first half, Lisiecki responding imaginatively to the individual world of the pieces, many of which derived from the early music of Scriabin, if with more modern tendencies. I especially enjoyed the three preludes by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski with their unusual harmonies, as well as the spiky sounds of Henryk Goredki’s preludes, both sets of pieces listed as Op. 1. The three Messiaen preludes, again very early pieces by the composer, gave a foretaste of the more famous works to come and were performed with equal sensitivity and refinement.

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The first half also included familiar music by Bach and Rachmaninoff, including the most famous of all Rachmaninoff preludes, the C-sharp minor, composed when he was just 19, as well as the G minor prelude from the Op. 23 set, again a familiar work. In all these pieces and others, Lisiecki offered mainstream accounts, polished technically, and performed with the utmost security and poise.

The Chopin Preludes that formed the second half are now a popular staple of piano concerts. They present a kaleidoscope of emotions within their short musical packages, including, here and there, moments of virtuosity. Given Lisiecki’s underlying poetic approach to performing, it was interesting that it was the more extrovert and impassioned moments that he succeeded best in this particular performance. The virtuosity of the ultra-fast left-hand figuration in the G major prelude and the equality demanding right-hand figurations in the B-flat minor prelude were impressive, as was the final torrential D minor prelude that closes the set. Lisiecki may present himself as a pianist poet, but there is also technical steel under the hood.

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Having played a great amount of Chopin’s music, and to very great success, Lisiecki was clearly at home in these pieces, even some of the preludes were more magical than others. The preludes and A-flat major and B-flat major struck me as particularly successful, as well as the fearsomely difficult prelude in F-sharp minor. At times, however, the playing was workmanlike and somewhat conventional.

But this is mostly a matter of personal taste, given the familiarity of this music. As an evening of solo piano preludes, the concert was tremendously enjoyed by the audience, pleased to hear music new and familiar, and happy to welcome back to Calgary a native son that does the city proud.

           

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