Jeremy Lee writes
Jan Lisiecki first came to my attention with a music video on Youtube of him playing the Andante of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto on a rooftop of a building, and while I thought the playing itself was wonderful, the video itself was spectacular and in some way uniquely touching.
For his solo debut for DG, Lisiecki has chosen to record Chopin’s Etudes, a popular set of works that strangely hasn’t been recorded very often in its entirety. We have already known how Lisiecki’s delicate, fluid touch and glowing tone can make wonders with Mozart, and with this recording, we can hear for ourselves how he fares with these taxing pieces.
In a nutshell, it’s a very poetic and genteel performance. Sure, Lisiecki has plenty of technique, as can be heard in the spectacularly clear and rapid alternating thirds of the G-sharp minor “Thirds”, or in all the runs which are managed with effortless speed and linearity. However, he never shows off his technique in dazzling display (unlike, say, Cziffra) and instead uses it to reveal the gentle, beautiful aspect of Chopin’s masterpieces. Hear that mesmerizing liquidity he brings to the the Aeolian Harp, and those lucid, whispering pianissimos (surely W. Kempff would have played it like this!), his expressive, poetic shaping of the relentless arpeggios of Op. 25 No. 12, or the hauntingly well-layered arpeggiated chords of Op. 10 No. 11. The well-known Op. 10 No. 3 is one of the most thoughtful, songful renditions I know, notwithstanding its comparatively brisk tempo, and while previously I felt the Op. 25 No. 7 a bit hard to love, Lisiecki’s immensely melancholy projection of the very long melody and his passionate interjections in the form of runs in the middle completely won me over. Of the slower etudes, only Op. 10 No. 6 disappoints slightly, which is a bit prosaic. But his deliberate detachment of the inner lines never fail to interest.
Of course, being Etudes, there are quite a few places where adrenaline may have suited the pieces better instead of geniality, the former being an approach that Lisiecki eschews throughout the whole album. Do I miss Cziffra’s crazy way with the Op. 10 No. 1, or Richter’s explosion through the Op. 10 No. 4, or Sokolov’s electrifying Winter Wind? I sure do, but that’s not Lisiecki’s way, and anyway his intelligence and coaxing expressiveness in the slower pieces are very much worth hearing. Good sound from DG rounds off this desirable disc that could serve as an ideal antidote to those who think they’ve had enough dazzle and fire in their Chopin Etudes. As for Lisiecki, he definitely shows promise, and I look forward to what he will do in the future. In fact, judging by his non-metallic tone, liquid touch and thoughtful musicality, I have a hunch that he’ll grow to become a modern Wilhelm Kempff, and if he does, remember–you read it here first!
- Album name: Chopin: Etudes
- Performers: Jan Lisiecki (piano)
- Label: DG 479 1039-8
- Sonics: Stereo DDD
- Total playing time: 60:15