If you know what people have been saying about Jan Lisiecki, you might enter the recital hall echoing some extremely high praise for this 17-year-old pianist. Of course, in Toronto, where Lisiecki has been studying at the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory, CBC Magazine is asking: “Is he the next Glenn Gould?” But after hearing his recital today of Chopin’s Études Opp. 10 and 25, my clearest thought is that Jan Lisiecki is like Fryderyk Chopin himself, a born storyteller.

Jan Lisiecki © DG / Mathias Bothor
Jan Lisiecki
© DG / Mathias Bothor

It is said that Chopin wrote his Études as exercises to solve certain pianistic technical problems. Jan Lisiecki said today, and I agree with him, that each étude is a chapter in a longer narrative. It is safe to say that since the Études are music without words, they are poetic narratives, because poetry is what you say about something when you can’t say for certain what it is saying. What is certain, though, is that Jan Lisiecki’s interpretations of Chopin’s Études, soon to be published on CD, are elegant and authoritative to an astonishing degree.

This pianist’s unimpeachable technique aside, in the domain of poetry, not all études are equal. The earliest numbers of Op. 10 are the writing of a teenager. Nos. 1 and 2 are, respectively, an uninterrupted chain of arpeggios, and a whirlwind of chromatic scale passages designed to strengthen certain fingers. No. 3, nicknamed “Tristesse”, is an exquisite melody Lisiecki plays slowly enough to express its poignancy. No. 4 is a driving toccata that he articulates with gnomish humour. No. 6, a richly chromatic song of melancholy out of the twilight zone, builds subliminal tension expressive of the longing for rest. Poetry aplenty there.

One writer dubbed no. 9 “a model of difficulty veiled in poetry”. I hear in this song an experience of loss told in all but words by a mature mind, be it Chopin’s or Lisiecki’s. No. 10, a continuous volley of legato octaves, manages to unfold a farcical comic opera that seems to run in circles. The delicate harp-like arpeggios of no. 11 give off the tender melodrama of domestic daily life, perhaps something the peripatetic Chopin longed for. The final étude echoes the tumult of war. In Lisiecki’s sensitive and tireless hands this work seems to express the struggle of strong desires in conflict with a superior and forbidding force. It could equally embody the feelings of a teenager, a stranger in a strange land that Chopin was, or Warsaw’s struggle in 1831 against the Russian army.

Op. 25, published in 1837, was admired by Robert Schumann, and despite the pianistic problems they were designed to tackle, almost every étude – to borrow Chopin’s own words – “acheives a simplicity that rewards the heart”. No. 1, nicknamed “The Aeolian Harp”, stirred Schumann to say: “[The music] seems to slip away like a radiant image contemplated in a dream that we, already half-awakened, are already longing to see again”. It is easy to hear “The Horseman” in no. 3. No. 4 moves like a canter in a carriage through a suburban wood and out into the open country where the rainbow brilliance of everything dissolves into open space. No. 5, “Wrong Notes”, starts out lightly but develops deep feeling, like a declaration of passionate love at odds with a need for domestic tranquility that closes the door on passion.

Most beautiful of all is “The Cello”, no. 7, inspired by a melody from Rossini’s opera Norma. Chopin here has crafted the most interesting melody of the set. Lisiecki’s tonal balance and touch ride the edge of openness; he explores the possibilities of Chopin’s melody as if he were finding his way through a twilight wood. No. 11 mimics the sweep of winter winds. In “Ocean,” the final étude, Lisiecki reveals the surprising strength of his fortissimos: they rise out of the troughs of this oceanic étude to a towering grandeur. Perhaps here is a metaphor that points towards this young musician’s future.

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