At the age of 21, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki has grown into a tall, slim young man, with long, pianist’s fingers and a mop of blonde hair. Seated at the keyboard – as he was on Wednesday (Feb 3) evening at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, for an appearance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – he perches precariously on edge of the bench, and doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with his knees. Fortunately, he knows exactly what to do with his hands.
Sharing the stage with Jakub Hrůša, a 35-year-old guest-conductor from the Czech Republic, Lisiecki played Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. (This concerto is also on his most recent CD, recorded with maestro Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell'Accademia di Santa Cecilia.) In a well-balanced collaboration with Hrůša, Lisiecki offered a poetic Schumann Piano Concerto, sensitive and nuanced. Establishing his approach in the first movement, his phrasing was smooth, and his tone was pure and unforced – with contrasting flashes of energy in his octave passages. His cadenza, was neat, poised and clearly articulated. The remaining two movements followed in suit: the second was delicate and introspective; and the third was a cheerful, fleet-fingered romp. All considered, here was much to admire in his polished performance – even if there were moments when a weightier, more powerful kind of playing might have been welcome. As an encore, Liseicki’s performance of Schumann’s Traümerei was the sweetest of dreams.
Lisiecki will be back in New York, at Lincoln Center, later this month, on Feb. 26, when he plays Chopin’s First Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under maestro Vladimir Jurowski. And from March 10 to 12, he’ll make three appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under Paul Goodwin, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto.
Flanking the Schumann Concerto were Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy – two orchestral showpieces that put Hrůša to the test. (And such tests take on heightened interest when a guest-conductor steps up to a lead an orchestra, such as the TSO, that’s in the midst of a search for a new music director.) In the Strauss, Hrůša and the TSO gave a fluid and transparent performance, featuring lush and warm sonorities. However, Hrůša’s relaxed tempi and limited use of the TSO’s dynamic range gave the impression that he was taking no risks with this piece. Happily, such was not the case with the Poem of Ecstasy. Here, conductor and orchestra delved enthusiastically into Scriabin’s psychedelic sound-world for a vivid, edgy and spontaneous performance. The finale was glorious and triumphant, with a tidal wave of bright, glittery sound pouring from the stage into the hall.
I almost forgot – there was one other piece on the program, by a composer whose name didn’t begin with S. Montreal composer John Rea’s contribution was Survivance: one of the 40 short “Sesquies” that the TSO has commissioned, in collaboration with numerous Canadian orchestras, to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017. Weighing in at just two minutes in duration, there wasn’t much to the piece: some slithering from strings, a downward slide from a trombone, a touch of fanfare from the trumpets. Rea did a fine job of making these gestures sound like they were building up to something – and then it was over.
© Colin Eatock 2017