Whilst most European opera houses and concert halls on New Year’s Eve were suffering from a surfeit of Fledermäuse or being spiritually uplifted by Beethoven’s Ninth, the fabulous new Narodowe Forum Muzyki in Wrocław presented a very original Silvester offering: Szymanowski, Grieg, Dvořák and as a happy-clappy encore, Johann Strauss Sr.

Daniel Raiskin © Sławek Przerwa NFM
Daniel Raiskin
© Sławek Przerwa NFM

Russian-born, Netherlands-based maestro Daniel Raiskin leapt into the fray with a spirited reading of Szymanowski’s Concert Overture. With its large Straussian orchestration, the NFM Filharmonia Wrocławska proved it is much more than a provincial Polish ensemble. Crisp but delicate wind playing, bravura boisterous brass and some sensitive string solos from concert master Radosław Pujanek ensured an authentic polska interpretacja of this late-Romantic music by the troubled aristocrat from Tymoszówka. Raiskin’s broad circular baton technique encouraged expansive playing from the palpably committed musicians and the lush orchestration displayed the superb acoustics of the NFM hall to maximum advantage. Cymbals crashed, low strings luxuriated Korngold-ish tsunamis of sound and brass would have withstood comparison with the Chicago Symphony under Solti. Only the higher strings occasionally lacked the requisite rhapsodic resonance.

Given that anything by Szymanowski outside Poland is something of a rarity, the almost ubiquitous Grieg Piano Concerto which followed was an odd bedfellow. Written when Grieg was just 24, the choice of 21-year old Canadian/Polish soloist Jan Lisiecki was not only age appropriate, but brought a youthful freshness to a work which all too often suffers from the ignominy of over familiarity. 

 A fondness for self-tied bow-ties is not the only connection the lanky Canadian pianist has with Vladimir Horowitz. Both have (or had) highly distinctive interpretive skills based on a rock solid technique. Despite his youth, Lisiecki brought remarkable maturity to the concerto and close attention to the score extolled the explicit virtuosity within its almost naïve, folksy Norwegian framework. From the terrifyingly exposed opening double-octave chords, it was clear that Lisiecki was in absolute control. The first movement tempi were more refined Rubinstein than explosive Richter. On the other hand, there were pianistic fireworks galore between passages of profound introspection. The mezzo-piano re-articulation of the principal A minor theme was beautifully measured and deeply wistful and Lisiecki seemed to intuitively grasp the underlying Nordic Weltschmerz which Grieg concealed within the sprightly dance rhythms. Sensitive phrasing in the winds, especially first flute Ewa Mizerska, complemented Lisiecki’s gentle cantilena. Maestro Raiskin was also attentive to Lisiecki’s elegant rubato even if several tuttis and phrase endings were less than metronomically pristine.

Jan Lisiecki and the NFM Orchestra © Sławek Przerwa NFM
Jan Lisiecki and the NFM Orchestra
© Sławek Przerwa NFM

A real highlight was Liciecki’s extraordinary playing of the cadenza. The pauses were meticulously observed while the climatic crescendo of fff double-octave chord recapitulation of the principal theme interspersed with rapid 16th note scale passages in the extreme lower range was electrifying.

 The exquisite D flat major Adagio was a model of feather-light evenness of tone producing supremely poetic phrasing, again reminiscent of Rubinstein or Lipatti. First horn Łukasz Łacny sensitively reflected the subtle lyricism of Lisiecki’s melodic line. The Allegro moderato third movement was cheekily thumpy as befits traditional Norwegian dance rhythms. Again Lisiecki’s youthful vitality gave an infectious rhythmic pulse to the principal syncopations whilst the contrasting lyrical poco più tranquillo section displayed an elegance of phrasing really remarkable in such a young pianist.

Lisiecki offered Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor op. posth. as an encore. Whether this was entirely appropriate for the festive nature of the evening is debatable. It is also possible that this mystical, ethereal opus wrought with such intense Sehnsucht may not come so naturally to an exuberant 21-year old, no matter how enormously gifted. This is not to say that it was poorly played – on the contrary there was outstanding legato portamento in the left hand, and poignant long trills even if the semiquaver runs at the end of the Adagio were not quite as limpid as one might wish for. Perhaps a crowd-pleaser Polonaise might have been a better option.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor “From the New World” again displayed both the NFM orchestra’s skills as well as the exceptionally fine acoustics of the hall to the utmost. Now baton-less, Raiskin kept balance and tempi well under control and brazen brass vied with wonderful wind playing (particularly impressive cor anglais from Stefan Małek) for Old World honours.

In deference to celebratory Silvester, Raiskin led a rousing encore of the Radetzky March and managed to keep the enthusiastically clapping audience more or less in time. Free champagne at the interval ensured a sparkling evening, although the Krug of the occasion was unquestionably the young pianist from Calgary Canada.