Almost a decade ago when he was 15 years of age, the Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecky signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. I was so intrigued I bought his first two albums via Apple Music: Mozart’s Piano Concertos No. 20 and 21 released in 2012; and Chopin’s Etudes released in 2013. Both recordings were listening joy along the lines of two reviews quoted by Deutsche Grammophon: “Pristine, lyrical and intelligent” (New York Times); and “A musician of unusual refinement and imagination” (Boston Globe). Personally, I particularly appreciated the cleanliness and clarity of his renderings of the Chopin etudes.
Now 24 years old, Lisiecki is well on his way to building a huge international presence. This is the reason why we were determined to attend his concert in Montreal on February 5th, 2020, if only to hear for ourselves how he has grown into his brand of musicianship. The evening’s program is reproduced below.
Clearly, Lisiecki exuded confidence on the piano. The trills were particularly superb, brilliant, well-executed and controlled: from the opening double octaves to the extended passages in the third movement. Clearly, he did not communicate any technical problems. I was thus able to listen closely and without fear. Let the music sing for itself.
I came away thinking that Lisiecki will further develop and mature. The lyric lines didn’t sing for me as much as I had expected. The melodic contours were sometimes lost in the thick sonorities. It seemed to me that there needed to be more intimacy between the piano and the orchestra – but that could be in part the conductor’s fault.
The Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal had a guest conductor, the young James Gaffigan. He had an energetic body language, almost dancing on the podium at times. It was at times distracting. The French horn section didn’t seem to be on point. In fact, one of the four let out a very visible yawn midstream. The sound they produced was unsteady and at times annoyingly off beat. After the concert I had to listen to recordings of the concerto to see how the French horn section handled those tricky passages, just to make sure my perception was real. It was.
In defense of the orchestra, their opening number, Vivian Fung’s aqua, was a fascinating soundscape. Well done. The Mozart however (Symphony No. 40) was less than stellar. It was an unfortunate choice perhaps because of the music’s popularity. Available to all are numerous recordings of the same and thus are in a position to compare. Gaffigan’s interpretation came off as routine and lifeless. At least that’s how I heard it.
Overall however, we were glad we came to see/hear Jan Lisiecki. I anticipate wonderful years ahead. The future is bright for this young musician.