Every city has its favourites, and Jan Lisiecki is Montreal’s darling. There was a sense of proprietary pride in the audience as the gangly eighteen-year-old strode smilingly across the stage at the Maison Symphonique to join the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, his thick bob of unkempt hair bouncing to its own rhythm. It was here, after all, in 2009, that the Calgary-born pianist first rose to prominence as the youngest ever winner of the OSM Standard Life Competition. Since then he seems to have taken the world by storm, with an impossibly busy and prestigious touring schedule, major recording deals and industry awards.

Jan Lisiecki
Jan Lisiecki

He’s young, as everyone is fond of pointing out, and his physical deportment confirms it. That’s why it’s all the more arresting when he begins to play. Make no mistake: Lisiecki is a serious pianist. More than that, he’s a musician, which makes him a rare commodity in the circus of barely-legal performers regularly making the rounds of top concert halls.

From the opening chords of the Schumann concerto, Lisiecki’s playing displayed tonal beauty and clarity. Never losing his sound in the orchestra, he nonetheless managed a delicate touch in the passagework. Particularly pleasing in the first movement were cascades of downward arpeggios which bubbled with inner life while never rushing, played almost without pedal. Some extraordinary opportunities for dialogue between solo oboe and piano went by regrettably unmarked. Though guest conductor Kazushi Ono seemed at times indifferent to the pianist’s forward prodding, Lisiecki’s moment of true artistry came at the end of the finale, when the compelling force of his pacing drove the final moments of the concerto in a tour-de-force close.

Lisiecki’s recent accolades include stepping in for Martha Argerich in a performance with Claudio Abbado, but he is no Argerich... yet. Why should he be? Praised for his maturity, it is precisely that Lisiecki does not allow his playing to be clouded by affectations of wisdom beyond his years which allows us to take him seriously. He forgoes the easy imitations and clichés with which we are all too familiar, preferring to interpret from a place of honesty which does not disguise his age – an act of restraint which paradoxically requires great maturity. Even greater things to come, I’m sure.

The two symphonic offerings of the evening could not have been more different in execution and effect. The concert opener, Mozart’s Symphony no. 31, was performed with a pared-down orchestra in accordance with the custom. With its many repeated notes and large sections of unison playing, the challenge is to bring lightness to the moving lines without rushing tempo. A sustained quality in the first movement sometimes lent a heaviness to the phrasing, while the Andante at points seemed to rest on its laurels. The third movement was very quick, having the positive effect of lightening the touch and propelling the piece excitingly forward.

Albert Roussel’s kaleidoscopic Suites nos. 1 and 2 from the ballet Bacchus et Ariane occupied the second half of the programme, showing both orchestra and conductor in their zones of expertise. Residing in the grey zone between famous and unknown, Roussel’s legacy is difficult to categorise. He followed no school – though critics cite Impressionism and Neoclassicism as influences – and he engendered no great followers. His music reveals a penchant for complexity, driving rhythms and rich orchestration, the harmonic language pushing the boundaries of tonality while remaining fully grounded within that system.

Divided on most recordings into 26 more or less continuous tracks with descriptive titles, the OSM elected to omit the ballet instructions for Bacchus et Ariane, emphasising the symphonic structure of the suites over narrative content. Programmatic moments still shone through clearly, including “The clouds gather”, “The clouds disperse and the sun reappears” and the ecstatic excess of the “Bacchanale” which brings the work to a whirling climax.

Moments of great beauty included solos from violist Jean Fortin and concertmaster Richard Roberts, and the frequent clarinet interjections of Alain Desgagné, played with wit and humour. The entire brass section was on top form, as it tends to be, and was responsible for the razor-sharp rhythmic precision which drives much of the music.

Currently at the helm of the Opéra de Lyon, Kazushi Ono has been widely praised for his interpretations of French composers, and the OSM has always excelled in this realm. Ono led with a sure hand and a firm control over the peaks and valleys of tempo and dynamics and the ever-shifting meter. The dancing aspect of this ballet score was adequately realised, and left me wishing that the staged version, so popular in 1930s France, could be revived in a contemporary production.

****1