In the film Impromptu we get interesting close-up looks at the personal lives of Chopin, Georges Sand, Liszt, Delacroix and a host of others. At one point we see Liszt & Chopin playing a Beethoven transcription together, a fascinating thought really. What did it sound like when great composers (such as Chopin or Liszt) encountered Beethoven? From a vantage point almost two centuries distant, when years of exposure to this music nearly thwarts our ability to hear the music with any freshness, it’s hard to imagine how someone living before the age of youtube, wifi, hi-fi, or even Victrola, would have looked at a score and read it for the first time. The age of recordings has made it possible to hear so many interpretations that a kind of orthodoxy has been established, a normal way of performing the standard repertoire.
Fruits & vegetables can taste quite fresh and wonderful, but sometimes they can be generic and uniform, depending on how they’re grown and procured. I’m no produce expert, but I imagine that the genetically modified tomatoes that survive any indignity on the way to market, that are somewhat red and taste something like a tomato after weeks, are thought to be preferable in the corporate boardrooms to the tomato that breaks more easily, has genuine flavor but likely ripens more quickly. No I don’t know this for certain but I suspect it’s the case, that costs are always paramount in the strategic discussions of big companies. We live in an era of corporate products, where chains such as Starbucks or McDonalds keep close watch on the output in Cambridge, Massachusetts or Cambridge, Ontario, to ensure that no one is disappointed, meaning that no one experiences anything diverging from the usual. There is much shared knowledge about how to raise chickens or how to raise performers to an amazing standard. As a writer observed a few years ago: virtuosity isn’t as rare as it once was. The singers coming out of the various schools are all very good for a core group of roles, able to give us Mimi or Cherubino or Marcello or Figaro, but coming up a bit short when some genuine vision, some star-quality is called for, as you’d want to see in an Aida or a Siegmund or a Mephistopheles.
All that is a preamble in recognition of the uniqueness of Jan Lisiecki.
I heard three consecutive concerts where Lisiecki and the Toronto Symphony played Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto. There was a quality to it that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it began with the awareness that this was not the usual approach to Beethoven. If you can recall the opening –a soft piano solo stating the main theme followed by a gentle echo from the orchestra—it’s usually done with a fair degree of metrical rigor. Whether fast or slow, the speed one encounters at the beginning is more or less the speed throughout the movement. That rigor is at least part of the consensus surrounding the way most people play Beethoven, rightly or wrongly.
Lisiecki does something very different, rightly or wrongly. Beethoven wrote a statement of the theme, ending with a run and what would seem to be the last words closing that opening sentence, usually understood to be in the same tempo throughout, but Lisiecki slows down to something introspective, poetic. Not only is it unexpected in Beethoven, some might argue that it’s idiomatically wrong, an imposition of another style. The first of those concerts seemed to throw Peter Oundjian and the TSO for a bit of a loop. Because Lisiecki had slowed the piece down substantially, when the orchestra answered they were going quite slowly. It took Oundjian a couple of pages –in this substantial orchestral exposition—to get the big orchestral ship back up to speed. I wondered whether this was partly because the orchestra was coming off a vacation day on their trip. Coaches of sporting teams sometimes worry about their team being too relaxed after a vacation, not having as much fire. Whatever the reason, at this moment there was little fire, just poetry. The next two nights of the same piece, Oundjian watched Lisiecki do his introspective poetry to begin the movement–slowing the piece down to a near stop—and responded by goading the orchestra right back to speed. It was marvelous to watch, as Lisiecki went in and out of that tempo sometimes slowing down for poetic solos, sometimes taking off in his cadenzas like a wildman.
Listening to Lisiecki’s recent CD of Schumann’s music for piano & orchestra (with Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia led by Antonio Pappano), though, I now have a different way of understanding him. Lisiecki seems to read each score from first principles: which is what you would want any artist to do. The Dustin Hoffmanns of this world –artists who read the script and explore, seeking deep meanings– can be the bane of a director’s existence, adding time to a production schedule. It’s a challenge to the productive cycle, when someone goes beyond the surface, diverging from the usual approach. The generic approach is cheaper, while an adventurous probing reading adds time & expense. Lisiecki isn’t at all generic and does not seem to be influenced by what others do, if he is even aware. This can be quite brazen, daringly different, playing music his own way. At first hearing I wrinkled my nose because it’s not what I expected, not what I understood Schumann to sound like.
It sounds like Chopin playing Schumann, an effete poet finding something unexpected.
Many of the fast passages are done with great delicacy, softer than usual. There’s an elasticity to the tempi somewhat like what I described with the Beethoven, but even more so. In fast passages, especially cadenzas, he is playing with such ease that the music sounds quite different. Instead of the usual sturm und drang a man seemingly on the brink of madness, this is a different sounding Robert Schumann. The fast passages are like coloratura vocalism, very much the way we hear it in Chopin, softer in many places than usual but with great clarity. And the overall effect with Pappano and the orchestra is wonderfully intimate, delicate and under-stated.
Lest anyone think this is meant to be a knock on the pianist, it’s not. This is a daringly original reading of these works, including Schumann’s well-known piano concerto, his op 92 Introduction and Allegro appassionato and his op 134 Introduction and Concert-Allegro. I welcome a new way of understanding this music, a genuinely original voice: a rarity nowadays. You hear this same originality in his Mozart or his Chopin.
One of these days we’ll stop calling him a “young pianist”, but I think this original voice of his will continue. I look forward to hearing what he undertakes next.