Classical Review: Jan Lisiecki - Mendelssohn

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Jan Lisiecki/Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

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(Deutsche Grammophon)

Though he’s still a little shy of his mid-twenties, Canadian pianist Lisiecki glowers out from the sleeve of his sixth CD like a veteran twice his age - which, in performing terms, he probably is.He was just thirteen when he recorded Chopin’s two concertos (for which he received the Diapason Découverte award), since when he has tackled Schumann, more Chopin and now, Mendelssohn’s two piano concertos.

Neither is among the most frequently heard among the German composer’s works - the album’s liner notes point out that, although 1831’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 1 in G Minor (Opus 25) was “hugely popular in its day,” it fell from fashion and has never really regained its place.Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No 2 in D Minor (Opus 40), too, has languished in comparative obscurity since its composition in 1837, but Lisiecki not only tackles both with the enthusiasm of a true acolyte, he also adds three further pieces which he believes “give listeners further insight into the composter’s colorful and inventive keyboard writing” - the “Variations Sérieuses” (Opus 54) “Rondo Capriccicioso in E Major” (Opus 14) and “Song Without Words in G Minor/Venetian Gondlola Song” (Opus 19b/6).

Their inclusion also, perhaps, serves a commercial purpose.Widely quoted over the years, not least of all on Wikipedia, Robert Schumann dismissed Opus 40 as offering “virtuosos little in which to show off their monstrous dexterity. Mendelssohn gives them almost nothing to do that they have not already done a hundred times before. We have often heard them complain about it. And not unjustly!”“It resembles,” he concludes, “one of those works thrown off by the older masters while recuperating from one of their great exertions.

Which may or may not be true, but such damnation does nothing to detract from the sheer enjoyment with which Lisiecki and the OCO approach either work.Shedding none of the youthful buoyancy that was always Opus 25’s greatest asset (Mendelssohn was just 22 when he wrote it), the performance is as frenetic as it ought to be, yet never feels rushed - if you have not yet done so, visit Youtube for Lisiecki’s January 2015 performance of the same piece, and the sheer joy of the piece is unmistakable.

Opus 54, which follows, is by contrast a far more somber piece, at least at the outset; its beauty is in the manner in which the mood shifts as it progresses, until Variation Six feels positively jaunty, and the good humor only builds until suddenly, the clouds gather again - only to be chased off once more.

Certainly it acts as the perfect bridge between the two concertos, with Opus 40 reflecting both Mendelssohn’s experience (he was now twenty-eight) and happiness - he had just returned from honeymoon when he composed it.

Yet it is tinged, too, with perhaps a sense of looming responsibility. He had a wife and, soon, a family to care for, and Lisiecki’s playing matches his remarks in the liners: “it’s less secure, it’s uncertain, it’s searching.”But it’s also destined for the explosive final movement that Mendlessohn himself described as a “pianistic firework,” and that is description enough!

Opus 14 is simply breathtaking - arguably, it ranks among the most exquisite six minutes that Mendelssohn ever composed, and Lisiecki’s approach acknowledges that status without allowing it to overwhelm his own performance.The liners call for “elfin lightness,” and that’s exactly what is delivered.

Finally the brief (1 minute 50) “Song Without Words” closes the album with majestic grace, a reminder of Lisiecki’s own belief that “going into a concert hall should be like going into a sanctuary. You’re there to have a moment of reflection, hopefully leaving feeling different, refreshed and inspired.”His recordings have the same effect.

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