In Deft Schumann, Pianist Shows His Star Power At 21

Pianist Jan Lisiecki (Ben Wolf)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — At the age of 21, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki has grown into a tall, slim young man, with long pianist’s fingers and a mop of blonde hair. Seated at the keyboard – as he was on Feb. 15  at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, for an appearance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – he perches precariously on the edge of the bench and doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with his knees. Fortunately, he knows exactly what to do with his hands.

Lisiecki’s Schumann album for Deutsche Grammophon

Six years ago, the Calgary-born Lisiecki turned heads when Deutsche Grammophon signed him to a multi-disc contract. Bypassing the biggest international competitions, he moved directly into his concert career, appearing with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Montreal Symphony, and other orchestras. He has cultivated an affinity for Chopin – in keeping with his own Polish ancestry – recording the Opp. 10 and 25 Études and both Piano Concertos, as well as some Mozart and a newly released Schumann album. A very Canadian kind of modesty has earned him the nickname of the “reluctant prodigy.”

Sharing the stage with Jakub Hrůša, a 35-year-old guest-conductor from the Czech Republic, Lisiecki played Schumann’s Piano Concerto. (This concerto is also on his most recent CD, recorded with maestro Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia.)

Jan Lisiecki, Jakub Hrůša take a bow. (Jag Gundu)

In a well-balanced collaboration with Hrůša, Lisiecki offered a poetic Schumann Concerto, sensitive and nuanced. Establishing his approach in the first movement, his phrasing was smooth and his tone was pure and unforced, with contrasting flashes of energy in his octave passages. His cadenza was poised and clearly articulated. The remaining two movements followed in suit: The second was delicate and introspective, the third a cheerful, fleet-fingered romp. All considered, there was much to admire in his polished performance – even if there were moments when a weightier, more powerful kind of playing might have been welcome. As an encore, Lisiecki’s performance of Schumann’s “Träumerei” was the sweetest of dreams.

Lisiecki will be back in New York, at Lincoln Center, on Feb. 26 when he plays Chopin’s First Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under maestro Vladimir Jurowski. And March 10-12, he’ll make three appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under Paul Goodwin, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.

Jakub Hrůša conducts the Toronto Symphony. (Jag Gundu)

Flanking the Schumann Concerto were Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, two orchestral showpieces that put Hrůša to the test. (It was a test that took on heightened interest because the TSO is searching for a new music director.) In the Strauss, Hrůša and the TSO gave a fluid and transparent performance featuring lush and warm sonorities. However, Hrůša’s relaxed tempi and limited use of the TSO’s dynamic range gave the impression that he was taking no risks. Happily, such was not the case with the Poem of Ecstasy. Here, conductor and orchestra delved enthusiastically into the Scriabin’s psychedelic sound-world for a vivid, edgy, and spontaneous performance. The finale was glorious and triumphant, with a tidal wave of bright, glittery sound pouring through the hall.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.