In the summer of 2012, I was driving from Ann Arbor, Michigan—Ypsilanti, to be precise—to Detroit Metro Airport (a short trip). I was listening to the CBC, i.e., Canadian radio. On the air was a piano recital, devoted to Chopin. The playing was arresting: smart, clean, and beautiful. Who was the pianist? I was hoping I could find out before reaching the airport.
It turned out to be someone unknown to me: Jan Lisiecki, a Canadian of Polish parentage. (This could explain the taste for Chopin.) And he was seventeen years old.
Today, he is twenty-four—that’s what his bio says. For a few more years, his bio will give his age. Then it will go silent on the question of age. If he lives and works long enough, his age will return to his bio: “Today, at eighty-four, Mr. Lisiecki continues to concertize all over the world.” That’s the way the game is played.
Last night in Carnegie Hall, young Mr. Lisiecki appeared with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra—a group that uses no conductor, a “riderless horse,” as I call such groups. He and Orpheus played Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40.
I will not vent my grievances about the Mendelssohn piano concertos (there are two) (piano concertos, that is, not grievances). I will simply say: violinists really lucked out, when it comes to Mendelssohn concertos. They would never trade their one for the pianists’ two.
Lisiecki’s playing was smart, clean, beautiful—I have mentioned those qualities before. His passagework showed a rare dexterity. His dreamy passages were admirably unsoupy. Every page was governed by taste.
Often, his legato was a little detached, if you will indulge me in a paradox. His legato was not creamy, but it was legato all the same. Very clean, very clear. Also, his playing tended to be on the dry side—but, for that, we might blame the hall.
(That was a lame attempt at a joke. The acoustics of Carnegie Hall are famously un-dry.)
The Orpheus orchestra was competent. The pianist occasionally led them, or helped them, with little nods and such. The orchestra opened the last movement with the right, compact merriment—a bristling merriment, if you will.
That movement is really well marked, by Mendelssohn: “Presto scherzando.” Lisiecki and the orchestra were indeed fast and jokey, or playful. The pianist’s octaves—very important here—were clean and virile.
With enough applause—barely—he sat down for an encore. I figured it would be one of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. I was trying to work out which one I would play. Instead, Lisiecki sat down to the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was well shaped and smartly, unusually ornamented. A treat.
The penultimate note—that F sharp, which will resolve into G—was very, very soft. I thought, “How will he get under it with the G, and still make the note sound?” He did, very, very impressively.
I had a memory of Horowitz. When I was a youth in Ann Arbor, I heard him play, among other pieces, Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat. He played a note that was very, very soft and had to be gotten under. (I could show you where in the score.) I figured, “No way.” Way. It was as impressive as anything I ever heard Horowitz do.
Last night’s concert began with a new work by Jessie Montgomery, an American—indeed, a New York—composer, called Shift, Change, Turn, and Variations. I will discuss it in my upcoming chronicle for the magazine.
A footnote, please. All through the Mendelssohn, there was a crying baby, or crying toddler, in the balcony. The cries continued during the Bach encore too. What can you do on an airplane? But in a concert hall, you can take the troubled tot out. Strange that it didn’t happen.