Orpheus in the underworld: Lisiecki’s romance

From the headline you might never guess that this is an analysis of musical performance.  Friday I had my second listen to Jan Lisiecki playing Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto with the Toronto Symphony conducted by Peter Oundjian.

Listening to JL and the TSO on Friday in dry clarity of the Peabody Auditorium I heard every note.

Pianist Jan Lisiecki with the Toronto Symphony (Photo: Michael Morreale)

Pianist Jan Lisiecki with the Toronto Symphony (Photo: Michael Morreale)

At one moment playing very quickly, I watched his deportment, the notes flying so thick and fast he becomes a blur.   JL carried on without stepping out of character as the virtuoso.  This too is a big part of the performance, to maintain the persona of the inspired romantic, transported on the wings of song to another realm: or so it might seem especially when, at a climactic moment, his body language and facial expression suggest a kind of rapture.  It’s contagious of course, because everyone else feels that way too, as the piece builds to its various climaxes.

I think I discovered something tonight listening to JL. Most pianists come to this work in a more conservative way, less willing to play with tempi & more likely to be ultra-orthodox in how they play the notes.

JL manages to bend the usual rules while still satisfying the stylistic requirements for Beethoven (setting the textual fundamentalists aside).  What JL does is juxtapose two different styles, which is pretty mind-blowing when I think about it.  Let me unpack that a bit.  The first entry of the piano –to start the work—is the statement of the main theme.  As it’s usually done this sets the tempo of the work for what follows, as the orchestra quietly answers, the first in a series of conversational exchanges between the orchestra & the soloist.  That’s not what JL did, however, as he slows down a bit, making this statement a bit more introspective, if not dreamy.  Oundjian has to spur the orchestra to pick it up a bit, as it would be quite reasonable for the orchestra to answer in the slower –dreamier—tempo.  And so what we get here is simultaneously in the conservative world of Beethoven (where dream are sometimes explosively alluded to but expressed within a strict framework of tempo and phrasing) and hinting at a less defined romantic world of dreams, perhaps as we might find more in the music of Chopin.  I am not saying that JL consciously does this, so much as that he’s playing according to a very self-consistent set of procedures that are 100% defensible, even as they are rare to encounter in this repertoire.

The piece is set up for a kind of conversation between interior and exterior, where the piano is a lot like you or me: living simultaneously with the four-square requirements of mundane reality, while pushing against that in hopes of something else.  Mostly, JL is playing a kind of game with the orchestra, so he’s in that world of accuracy but every now and then Beethoven asks the pianist to do something other than one of the two main themes.  Those themes are recognizable material, embedded into our heads at a particular tempo.  When JL starts to play arpeggios or fast quirky patterns that no longer are motivic, he’s free to play faster, or possibly to go off into a dreamier tempo.  So in other words, if this were a painting or a building, the edges or foundation are made of those square parts, but there are also all these other places where something else is happening.  It’s understood that for example the music of Chopin calls for a certain freedom, a tendency to use “rubati” (literally stolen time), going faster here, slower there; to play Beethoven this way is intriguing, and relatively rare nowadays.

We see this most clearly in the cadenzas, especially the big one in the first movement.  JL takes us off into something bordering on the irrational, the most dissonant and noisy music in the concerto, suggesting at least sturm und drang, if not outright madness or death.  This big cadenza is like an ordeal, a fit of irrationality in the midst of the rationality of this sonata form movement, bursting at its own seams.  JL pushes as fast as he can in the places where we’re not doing one of those main themes, but comes back to earth for those moments, as though in reference to the edge of the painting or the bottom of the building’s sub-basement.  If nothing else it’s an enormous expenditure of energy, a little play within the play, as the soloist seems to fight with and then master his demons for a few minutes all alone.  In the moments playing the main themes, we hear playing that sounds Mozartian and conservative, but at times the romantic –as in Chopin– lurks under that classical surface.

Then we come to the second movement, where the battle is most explicit in what Beethoven wrote, and not just a matter for JL’s interpretation.  This dark little movement has been compared to the encounter between Orpheus and the Furies of the underworld.  I’ll give you a recorded example –for those who don’t know this charming little piece—and notice how the tale seems to be enacted:

  • The orchestra grumbles like the implacable hounds of hell
  • The piano enters as calmly as the Thracian Singer: unafraid but also, clearly a different kind of music
  • The dialogue goes back and forth: and eventually the orchestra –especially confronted with a short brilliant eruption of irrationality from the piano in trills and scales—seems to lose its nerve, or become a little less ferocious.
  • The result is something calmer and gentler, as if the demons have been moved by his music

Oundjian maximized the drama, giving the orchestra some of the nastiest sounds I’ve ever heard in this piece, angular and jagged, rather than attempting to make a nice accompaniment for the piano (as some do, as in the youtube example).

While the third and final movement has drama, it is more of a celebration, off to the races (well it IS Daytona after all), as we get some marvellous energy released but without so much fatality this time.  There are still some flashes of the irrational but nowhere near as scary as what we’ve seen up until now.  In places the style is romantic, although at key framing moments JL gives us exactly what we need to be able to call it classical.

I’m very happy to be hearing this again Saturday.

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

One Response to Orpheus in the underworld: Lisiecki’s romance

  1. Pingback: The TSO 100, alongside the speedway  | barczablog

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