In the great universal handbook for pianists (should such a thing exist) there would be a chapter on the piano music of Chopin with a special advisory note to pianists who choose to play the Polish master's music on a modern concert grand piano: don't force the fortes. It is said by those who heard him play that even in the forte and fortissimo dynamic range, Chopin's sound never rose above mezzo-forte. This was in part of course due to the more quietly-spoken piano which he favoured, but it is also an important reminder that his music requires refinement, nuance and sensitivity, especially at the louder end of the dynamic spectrum.

Jan Lisiecki © Mathias Bothor
Jan Lisiecki
© Mathias Bothor

Sadly, it was apparent that young Jan Lisiecki, the 20-year-old Polish-Canadian pianist who has burst onto the international piano scene with much acclaim for his recording of Chopin's two sets of Études, had not done his homework on this occasion. His account of the Op.25 Études, which occupied the second half of the concert, was largely unrefined: fortes and fortissimos were thumped to the point of ugliness and even in the softer dynamic range, there was little differentiation of sound or articulation, phrasing often went awry, and his penchant for emphasis of certain left-hand details made no sense. There were glimmers of possibility: the “Aeolian Harp” began well, its delicate figurations accompanying the melody, but as soon as the volume increased the delicacy was lost. The C-sharp minor Étude (no. 7) had a well-shaped left hand cello line and Lisiecki succeeded in floating the right hand chordal figure above it. Meanwhile, the “Butterfly” bounced around the keyboard like a clumsy over-sized moth, while the brutal growling of the “Winter Wind” Étude was too much. Overall, it sounded contrived and lacking in sensitivity.

Fortunately, Lisiecki offered a pleasant account of Mozart's Piano Sonata K331 to open his Wigmore Hall recital. The first movement was tastefully articulated, its genial theme and variations presented with elegance and care, though with rather too obvious treatment of the repeats (playing them quieter). The middle movement was expansive. Lisiecki achieved warmth and colour in the trio section, and overall there was a clear sense of the orchestral nature of Mozart's writing with some intelligent bass highlights. The Rondo Alla Turca finale was crisp and witty, with some neat left hand details, and its dynamic range was kept in check which undoubtedly contributed to the character of this movement. 

The three concert studies by Liszt were an opportunity for Lisiecki to demonstrate his technical prowess and I have no criticism of this – he is obviously in possession of supreme technical facility as evidenced by the ease with which he handled intricate scale and arpeggio figures and Liszt's distinctive and often pianistically challenging ornamentation and cadenzas. But here technique triumphed at the expense of artistry and musicality, and as a result the pieces seemed laboured, as Lisiecki failed to appreciate the swagger and wit in Liszt's writing. Only “Un Sospiro” really took flight with more natural virtuosity.

Mendelssohn's Variations Sérieuses were simply brash: incoherent phrasing, aggressive dynamics and exaggerated tempi obscured the counterpoint and the brilliance of Mendelssohn's writing, and the result was often muddled and lacking in clarity.

There were moments of insight and sensitivity in the performance, but overall I felt we were treated to a display of the "louder faster" school of pianism. It struck me that perhaps Mr Lisiecki has yet to find repertoire with which he is entirely at home: when he does, I hope we may hear good things from this young artist.