Lisiecki’s realization of “another side of Chopin” enjoys poetic and engaging musicianship from all principals. 

CHOPIN: Works for Piano and Orchestra = Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise brillante in G Major/E-flat Major, Op. 22; Rondo a la krakowiak in F Major, Op. 14; Variations on “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Op. 2; Fantasy on Polish Airs, Op. 13; Nocturne in c-sharp, Op. Posth. – Jan Lisiecki, p./ NDR Elbphilharmonie Orch./ Krzysztof Urbanski – DGG 479 6824, 64:43 (3/10/17) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Jan Lisiecki (b. 1995) comes to us visa the Glenn Gould School of Music in Toronto; and his penchant for the music of Chopin has already been demonstrated in recordings of the concertos (in Poland) and the etudes (for DGG), that testify to a light, fluid touch that likes to caress the polyphonic, vertical colors out of Chopin’s layered harmony. Listening to this survey (rec. 6/2016) of the Chopin large works other than the concertos, I sense the influence of young Claudio Arrau in terms of lyrically polished, refined technical facility. The opening foray, the 1834 Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, glistens in the opening pages, a dragonfly approach rife with color on a par with what Hofmann achieved in 1938 at the MET. Suddenly, “the other side of Chopin” erupts with the orchestral flourish of the Grande Polonaise, with its extremes of tutti and exposed instrumental colors. The silken rubato in the keyboard part has a velvet glove from conductor Urbanski, who follows the national dance into its distinct periods, roulades, runs, and arioso and bel canto musings, with the occasional touch from the French horn. The two combine in the coda in a kind of ‘waterfall’ effect, with cascades of national rhythm surrounded by a flurry of resolute chords.

Teacher Jozef Elsner supervised the composition of the 1828 Krakowiak Rondo, in which horns and expressive strings accompany the piano’s florid stile brilliant. The dazzling syncopations receive full bow accompaniment from the strings, then pizzicato effects. When the winds enter, the music gains a momentum in 2/4, and the lively character of the dance assumes a rustic wildness. The counter-themes for this evanescent and charming rondo become tender and melancholic, typical of the Chopin ethos. Lisiecki adds his own, occasional ornaments to the glistening line, to which flute and other winds lend their distinctive voices. While some of us miss the fact that Artur Rubinstein never recorded this splendid and elegant piece, we can admire Lisiecki in his competition with that other master of the style in Alexis Weissenberg.

The 1827 B-flat Major Variations on ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni bear much of the Elsner pedagogy, requiring the youthful Chopin to incorporate the idea of a solo bravura vehicle with orchestra that fused the Classical, Mozart style with the new, improvisatory excitement afforded in the music of Hummel. Set as an Introduction, Theme, Five Variants, and Coda: Alla Polacca, the work immediately won over the admiration of Robert Schumann, who (in the guise of Eusebius) observed that a sense of national color suffused even this traditional form as employed by a composer who took an opportunity to combine nobility with wildness. Besides the kaleidoscopic colors accorded piano and orchestra, the fifth variation (in D-flat Major) explores the music’s Romantic possibilities: the duet, recall, casts a demonic and seductive, erotic force in the form of the Don against the naïve but steadfast moral resistance in Zerlina. The series of character sketches of the variations likely proves the basis for Rachmaninov’s treatment of the a minor Caprice by Paganini. Schumann found something of Leporello in the blazing polonaise, here in bold colors from Lisiecki and Urbanski, who have the Don scurrying away in the presence of virtue, as he will soon be carried away by Divine retribution.

The 1833 Fantasy on Polish Airs, happily, did motivate Artur Rubinstein to make a recording, so as to leave Lisiecki a firm basis of comparison. Meant for a distinctly Parisian audience, the Fantasy bears the nature of a brilliant mix of national tunes and truly instrumental vocalism, the standards of the Chopin style. What passes as an opening nocturne soon transforms into potpourri of Polish songs, the first sweet and simple, “The Moon has Risen.” Lisiecki and woodwinds, particularly bassoon, swoon with each other, while Lisiecki’s upper register roulades and passing bass harmonies fill out an Aeolian harp effect. A dumka suddenly appears, attributed to the composer Kurpinski, and it brings a surging drama with it, moving away from the dominant key of A Major to a surly f minor, as suited to Kurpinski’s “Elegy on the Death of Tadeusz Kosciuszko.” The music assumes a new force and fire, moving in form to other Polish dances, oberek and kujawiak. Like Rubinstein, Lisiecki achieves these dance transitions with streamlined grace, effortless poise that maintain the work’s nobility and folk roots, at once.
The magnificent Nocturne in c-sharp minor first appeared to me via Mayla Jonas, so its poetry had already assumed epic proportions. This Nocturne No. 20 (1830; pub. 1849) bears a melancholy stamp in spite of its sudden, brief eruption into what would become figures for the f minor Piano Concerto. Some speculate the work meant to say farewell to the composer’s first love, Constantia Gladkowska.  True to its marked designation, Lento con gran espresione, Lisiecki honors Chopin (and Jonas) in his rendition, ending this fine disc with a loving performance of rarified poem in sound.

–Gary Lemco