Jan Lisiecki’s recital at the Riga Jurmala Music Festival was initially announced as opening with Chopin’s Two Nocturnes, Op.55, launching a nocturnal first half with Schumann’s Four Nachtstücke (Night pieces) and Ravel’s mighty Gaspard de la Nuit. In the event the Chopin was replaced with Bach’s early Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, marking (possibly) Johan Jacob’s leaving Germany for Sweden. This linked to the Schumann, whose work marks another fraternal departure – from life – that of Eduard Schumann in 1839. The Bach was played with a lively response to its illustrative literalism – its Andante second movement is titled “They picture the dangers that are likely to befall him”, though nothing musically very dangerous happens. In the slower music – “The Friends’ Lament” with its extreme marking of Adagiosissimo – Lisiecki gave us playing as it used to be before the prevailing orthodoxy banished romantic feeling from Bach’s keyboard works.

Jan Lisiecki © Evija Trifanova
Jan Lisiecki
© Evija Trifanova

Schumann’s Nachtstücke opens with some very melancholy funeral music, and Lisiecki’s manner here was heavy and full of foreboding (Schumann had had premonitions of his brother’s death). Subsequent movements introduce more variety but never quite banish the sense of lamentation. This work is not played that often compared to most of Schumann’s other large keyboard works, and it was good to hear it given with such obvious belief in the music and concern for its densely allusive qualities. When the funereal opening was recalled in a more folk-like style in the last item, Lisiecki made it seem inevitable and right, banishing any doubts about Schumann's approach to form in this work.

If those Bach and Schumann pieces are not quite out of each composer’s top drawer, Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is surely among his best works in any genre, and notoriously difficult to perform. The opening Ondine depicts a water nymph singing to seduce a mortal into visiting her kingdom at the bottom of a lake. It revisits Ravel's early Jeux d'eau with the sounds of water shimmering in swift cascades of brief chords at the outset, immaculately evoked by Lisiecki’s sheer keyboard command. The two climaxes were terrific, ideally paced and phrased. Le Gibet’s ostinato octave B flat tolling bell was kept rock steady, even at a very slow tempo, while the hanged man swung in the reddening sky. Ravel's mastery of the Gothic genre received here the iron control and ferocious concentration from the pianist that it needs. Scarbo, that most technically challenging of Ravel’s keyboard pieces, was not so successful. It’s a fast work, but Lisiecki's breakneck speed seemed unpersuasive in a piece where so many notes have to be fitted in to make the musical line coherent. Of course, Lisiecki can play it that fast, but we cannot hear it that fast. So much detail flies by in frantic succession, that a true sense of impetus is imperilled by imprecision. It was exciting, but Scarbo’s flickering mischievous menace did not make itself felt.

Jan Lisiecki © Evija Trifanova
Jan Lisiecki
© Evija Trifanova

Rachmaninov’s Cinq Morceaux de fantasie, Op.3 contains that Prelude in C sharp minor, which Rachmaninov came to hate as his recital audiences always insisted upon it as an encore. So it was good to hear it beautifully played in context for once, where it made a great impression, but not one to dwarf the other four numbers around it. The Polichinelle (Pulcinella), a rare genre piece from the Russian, sparkled ideally, a true Allegro vivace given the most scintillating playing in the fast sections, as well as some of Rachmaninov's trademark lyricism in the middle section that announce the mature composer even in this early work.

If we could not start with Chopin, we could end with him, and the refinement of his late Nocturne no. 19 in E minor was Lisiecki at his elegant and tasteful best. The Scherzo no.1 in B minor was dashingly performed, evoking the 19th-century lions of the keyboard in its heroic flair, reflecting nationalist political events in the composer’s homeland. The outer sections were again taken at a very swift tempo that threatened a loss of musical clarity at times, but the exquisite and extensive middle section, with its evocative use of an old Polish carol, was perfectly realised. An encore of Schumann’s Träumerei had the same haunting quality, the ideal sound to carry out into the warm Baltic night.


Roy's press trip to Jūrmala was funded by the Riga Jurmala Music Festival

****1