Beethoven, Nielsen and Mozart: TSO & Jan Lisiecki

Tonight was the last of the mini-festival of three programs / five concerts from the Toronto Symphony ostensibly featuring the music of Carl Nielsen & two of his big influences, namely Mozart & Beethoven.

It’s as though there were two parallel festivals:

  • Nielsen compositions conducted by Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard to commemorate his 150th birthday “this season” (the anniversary falling in 2015)
  • The last three Beethoven piano concerti played by Canadian prodigy Jan Lisiecki.

Hype notwithstanding, many in the audience were clearly there to hear Lisiecki ‘s Beethoven, judging by the size of the exodus at intermission. The huge ovation afterwards encouraged an encore, and it was a Chopin nocturne.

It’s funny but I was already thinking of Chopin during the concerto, namely the 5th aka the “Emperor”. Lisiecki gave us a very romantic Emperor, enlarging the dynamic range; while it’s usually from pp to ff, the quiet passages were more like three p’s (whatever that would be called), if not four. In the slow movement the tempi changed a few times, leading conductor Dausgaard a merry chase, because the solos were at times so soft that they were almost impossible to hear. I was reminded of rubati such as you’d find in the Chopin 1st concerto. With this performance I couldn’t help noticing large parallels between the two works, separated by only about twenty years in the year of composition. It’s only problematic to those who are fundamentalists (those who wouldn’t abide tampering with their precious Beethoven), as the delicacy of the reading was revelatory. I had to remind myself that Lisiecki is still very young (is he even 20 yet?), as this was a very mature, even profound probing of the depths in the Beethoven, and a legitimate approach.

Lisiecki sounded wonderfully original at the end of the second movement, in the transition leading into the last movement. The slow first utterance of the theme for the third movement is written “pp” (as I just discovered, looking it up). And I guess this is the first time I’ve ever heard it played as written(!). All those notes usually come out quite a bit louder from soloists, perhaps a mezzo-piano, and never as delicate as a true pianissimo: which is what Lisiecki gave us.

And so when the third movement began we had a true and overpowering contrast in the fortissimo solo statement of the theme that follows. And I was surprised at how quickly it was played, possibly the fastest I’ve ever heard in a live performance. When the orchestra made their entry they were ready to give pursuit, and so the whole movement was at that quick pace, light and infectiously rhythmic, up to and including a breath-taking reading of the last quicksilver runs from Lisiecki leading to the last note.

Pianist Jan Lisiecki (photo: Mathias Bothor-- DG)

Pianist Jan Lisiecki (photo: Mathias Bothor– DG)

Lisiecki is fascinating to watch, his growing maturity already in evidence. He’s not exactly a veteran but he’s been a prodigy for awhile now, as the 2009 CBC documentary “The Reluctant Prodigy” would suggest (part one | part two).

He has remarkable posture, sitting very tall with no visible effort except in a few big passages. He sits straight up even when playing and seems to have enormous strength and stamina. There are times when you can’t see that he’s playing, because he is so effortless, so relaxed at the keyboard.

Works such as the Nielsen are precisely what I want to hear from the Toronto Symphony. I recognize that the audience probably want to hear Beethoven and Mozart, but those are composers one hears all over town (ie from Tafelmusik as well), whereas Nielsen can’t be heard anywhere else. This big sound requires a huge orchestra of modern instruments. With Dausgaard they had a champion of Nielsen, someone possibly pushing the players to another level. No, Nielsen will never be the draw that Beethoven can be, but that’s why this festival was an example of brilliant programming.

Nielsen in this instance sounds like the missing link between Mahler and Shostakovich, an exponent of huge orchestral sounds. The first movement begins with a kind of chaotic blur of repeated notes not so very different from the way Beethoven’s 9th opens (speaking of Beethoven’s influence). Like Shostakovich’s Fifth, a military mood in the brass & percussion seems to invade the piece, literally disrupting something that was peaceful up to that point.  The explosive sounds coming from the orchestra are very enjoyable, sometimes sounding like a big debate between the sections.  The final moments came together in a kind of perfect and clear statement of the theme, bringing the audience to their feet.

To open we heard a reading of the Don Giovanni overture, beginning with the most misterioso reading I’ve ever heard ot the first subject, creating a wonderful sense of drama before the boisterous allegro began.

This was the last concert in the series.

TSO Nov 20, 2014 Thomas Dausgaard, conductor and Jan Lisiecki, piano (photograph: Malcolm Cook)

TSO Nov 20, 2014 Thomas Dausgaard, conductor and Jan Lisiecki, piano (photograph: Malcolm Cook)

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s