When the conductor looks like he has just stepped out of a boy band and the soloist seems too young to even join one, odds are this is unlikely to be a typical classical music concert. Despite the extraordinarily youthful appearance of both Krzysztof Urbański and Jan Lisiecki, their performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor was a masterpiece of mature musicality and seasoned virtuosity.

Krzysztof Urbański © Marco Borggreve
Krzysztof Urbański
© Marco Borggreve

First Urbański led the Orchestre National de Lyon in a spirited but nuanced playing of the overture to Die Zauberflöte which augured well for what was to come. Conducting without a score, the musical director of the Indianapolis Symphony revealed why he is one of today’s most talked about young conductors. Urbański is the opposite of a metronomic time-beater and sensually shapes the musical phrases as if Rodin reincarnated with a baton instead of a lump of clay. After slightly hesitant opening chords, the Allegro section was off to a brisk start with clear staccato quavers, even slurs and crisp sforzandi. Flute scales and bassoon chortles were carefully measured, crescendos finely graduated and climaxes forceful without being forced. The brief return of the so-called Masonic triple-knock chords had more gravitas than before and the spirited conclusion, albeit slightly louder than forte as marked, presaged the magic to come – not from Tamino’s flute but rather Lisiecki’s piano.

Urbański’s second non-soloist selection was the Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski who is not exactly a household name south of Silesia. It is a tour de force showpiece for very large orchestra (including five percussionists) requiring virtuoso playing in all sections. Comparison with Bartók’s work of the same name is neither inapposite nor unfavourable. The opening thumping timpani recalls Brahms' First Symphony but is much more ominous. Harsh repeated chords suggest the influence of Stravinsky. There was some relief in the lighter Capriccio notturno with delicate mormorando solo exchanges but then fortissimo trumpets terrorise the Trio. The Passacaglia brought back ruminating double basses followed by a manic Toccata leading to a non-vocal Corale and decibel-shattering Coda. Again conducting the complicated score from memory, Urbański was able to draw out the very essence of this huge Sturm und Drang modernist composition with tight rhythmic control and skillful instrumental balance.

The centrepiece of the programme however was Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto. The maestoso movement was initially marred by some diffident intonation in the first violins during Urbański’s expeditive reading but crashing downward semiquavers from the 22-year old Polish/Canadian pianist brought the work into focus. Lisiecki’s restatement of the dotted rhythm mazur theme was played with impressive authority. The fortissimo second beat chords were fiery and sixteenth-notes gossamer fine. Despite having to deal with what was clearly a sluggish action Steinway, Lisiecki displayed his celebrated feather-light touch at the a tempo with leggerisssimo phrasing and exquisitely nuanced rubato.

The nocturne-style Larghetto is one of the earliest examples of Chopin’s ability to craft a melodic line of Bellinian beauty and elegance. From the opening prolonged A flat arpeggio gliding to the upper extremity of the keyboard with the molto con delicatezza that Chopin demanded, it was clear that Lisiecki possesses the innate phrasing of the mature Rubinstein with the interpretative panache of the young Pogorelić. Pristine trilling, adroit pedalling, crystalline runs, optimal finger-weight and superbly judged fermate made this sublime movement a mystical, spellbinding experience.

Perhaps it was Lisiecki’s Polish roots coming to the fore, but the Allegro vivace, particularly in the heavily syncopated scherzando drawn from Chopin’s love of rustic kujawiak dancing, was a carefree carousel of rhythmic exuberance. Lisiecki also brought out usually subsumed inner voices in the score, particularly in the left hand octaves during the triplet runs. A flawless C major fanfare from first horn heralded the coruscating coda.  

Apart from his obviously exceptional musical talent, the most impressive thing about Lisiecki’s performances is how much the young Canadian obviously enjoys playing the piano. Such genuine unaffected enthusiasm is infectious and not only the audience but also the orchestra responded with avidity and admiration.

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