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Captivating, Intelligent, Unique: Lisiecki at Shalin Liu


Twenty-eight-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, a phenom since his childhood, wowed and charmed a full hall at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival this weekend with a signature all-Chopin recital of the dozen études of Opus 10 interwoven with 11 nocturnes. Four days earlier I’d been equally fortunate to hear the pianist in Montreal, where he collaborated with the Emerson Quartet in Dvořák’s piano quintet as part of its farewell tour. I feel too old to be a “groupie,” but this pianist elicits exceptions.

Artistic Director, Barry Shiffman, noted the presence of Lisiecki’s parents and his former teacher, James Anagnoson, Dean of The Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School in Toronto. An academic star as well musical, Lisiecki exudes a friendly, humble demeanor, despite having garnered many honors and prizes, starting with the Grand Award in 2008 in the Canadian Music Competitions (the youngest awardee in its history). It was touching to watch his generous interactions with attendees in the post-concert reception, particularly with children.

These days he keeps a hectic schedule of over 100 concerts per year. However, this program  derived from his culturally rooted interest in his Polish ancestry and developed during the pandemic. Why play it? Perhaps, because it works. People have been comparing études and other works for many years, emphasizing the similarities and contrasts. In Lisiecki’s case, planning the program ripened over time. His interview responses and his spontaneous answers to listeners in the post-program reception have a common thread: “Musicians and listeners see various linkages, and the idea is that these works go well together. Lots of parallels are found among them.” He has been offering this set dozens of times since the 2021-22 season, invariably to warm responses.

Lisiecki’s style is unique—in part, no doubt, to do with his physiognomy. At moments he appeared as an unleashed Scottish Wolfhound or Borzoi at the keyboard, given his height and enthusiasm. His infectious youth and excitement mesmerized the audience. His focus on the keyboard and the impetus of the music seemed like an intense conversation with the instrument, treating the piano almost as a love object.

He delivered the entire Opus 10 set of études in order, with the various nocturnes interspersed, linked either by key, mood or preference. The artist has long had the chops to play all of these challenging pieces with nuance, verve, and, as needed, gravitas. His dynamic and impressive musical breadth reaches from the quietest pianissimo to massive fortissimo, along with thoughtful phrasing. Yet it is clear he has not yet even reached his full powers. He banged a bit especially in the opening C Major étude, though that might have been either the overbright piano voicing or his unfamiliarity with a smaller hall than normally hosts him. I found something to savor in each étude, especially the E major, no. 3, Tristesse, in which Lisiecki overcame the popularized aspect; the G-flat major, no. 5, in which one could appreciate the black keys in the beautifully articulated execution; and the E-flat major, no. 11, for its restful arpeggios yet masked passion.

The interspersed nocturnes added poignant depth and provided something to ponder. Lisiecki engendered deep feeling with these works, which elicit emotion. Of Chopin’s 21 Nocturnes (3 posthumous) the 11 we heard ranged from Opus 9, no. 1, from Chopin’s 20th year, to posthumous. He gave the two Opus 27 nocturnes the most exquisite interpretations despite the fact that Opus 27 met with a weaker appeal than the other nocturnes during the composer’s life. The C-sharp minor, Opus 27 no. 1, following the étude in the same key, expressed a range from contemplative to inconsolable and back. Opus 27 no. 2 in D flat major, with its deep sadness, despite the key, followed attacca.

Without a doubt Lisiecki is a pianistic leader who will thrive. His intelligence, mastery, and programming will continue to expand, and coupled with his irresistible stage command, he will broaden the appeal of classical music.

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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