CHOPIN: Etudes, Op. 10 and Op. 25 – Jan Lisiecki, piano – DGG 479 1039, 60:38 [Distr. by Universal] (5/7/13) ****:

There currently seems to be a glut of brilliant keyboard virtuosos who all play the Chopin Etudes with thrilling elan, so yet another traversal may or may not warrant our instant rush to the CD store. Jan Lisiecki (b. 1995), a much-touted Polish-Canadian pianist, recorded this set of the Chopin Studies at Koerner Hall, The Royal Conservatory, Toronto in January, 2013.  Lisiecki brandishes a full and sonorous tonal palette, and he takes the fast etudes – the C-sharp Minor No. 4 and G-flat Major No. 5 serve here – at a good clip. I like his articulation in the A Minor, Op. 10, No. 2, whose chromatic line and shifting metrics challenge many a more seasoned artist. The popular E Major does attest to Lisiecki’s capacity for lyric poetry and fervent drama, respectively.  He often eschews or proves stingy with pedal, which makes him remind me of Ivo Pogorelich.

With the E-flat Minor,  Op. 10, No. 6 Lisiecki introduces an aura of mystery we had not yet heard. His tempo may seem glib, but the subtle polyphony emerges clearly, as does the sense of harmonic color. Quick pulsations and rounded repeated notes mark the C Major, whose syncopes seamlessly flow by in instrumental song. The F Major sweeps by gracefully with marvelous motor control, but without any fresh insight, but the F Minor relishes a Gothic nervousness  that indulges “the dark side.”  The A-flat Major tests Lisiecki’s sense of accent, and he makes the considerable spans of the piece graciously fluent.  Wrist and finger control find their Herculean labors in the E-flat Major, in which almost every bar contains a rolled chord, some with huge spans. When the melodic line moves from the top note to the middle, Lisiecki does not break the illusion of a seamless harp. The dark passion of the C Minor “Revolutionary” Etude remains potent, more for its fury than merely because of the cross-rhythms and monster octaves that hurl the lightning for Poland’s liberation.  Lisiecki makes the last page somewhat softer than other pianists’ wont.

Facility of touch and poetic, arpeggiated voice-leading define the A-flat Major “Aeolian Harp” Etude, Op. 25, No. 1, and Lisiecki adds to the annals of those who execute it with love.  Counterpoint in left hand triplets in 4/4 make the F Minor a devil to perform in strict legato figurations, but we have Lisiecki’s rather streamlined approach. The galloping F Major moves playfully to B Major in an agogic mix of notes in which white key replace the black keys. Lisiecki makes the sonorous transitions sound easy. Next, in A Minor, Lisiecki’s staccato touch reigns as a motor technique, although his legato must sing, too, while all moves scherzando. A fine singing line emerges in the E Minor after the series of off-beat accents. A subtle sense of touch and fine ear for transition both recommend Lisiecki in this study. A study for the “weak” fingers, the G-sharp Minor offers a series of right-hand thirds to challenge the fingers and the liquid imagination. Lisiecki’s gradations of color dynamics impress me with the range.

The ballade-like C-sharp Minor combines Bach polyphony with Bellini’s bel canto vocal line. Lisiecki nurses this poignant etude as though it were a poised and pained nocturne, quite capable of tragic song in various registers and often independently wrought by each hand. Lisiecki controls his piano and pianissimo dynamics effectively.  The moto perpetuo No. 8 in D-flat contests right hand sixths against virtually every other construction – from thirds through octaves – for the left hand. Lisiecki’s traversal lasts barely over a minute, but it stops the heart. Staccato black notes in G-flat Major (No. 9) used to be a demonic calling card for Josef Hofmann. Lisiecki comes close, but he cannot quite replicate the diaphanous impishness of Hofmann’s treatment. The violent chromatic octave sequence (for both hands) of the opening of No. 10 in B Minor has few rivals for passionate outburst.  Lisiecki takes care of his pedal points to etch a lovely, emergent  melody that can become banal if performed too glibly.  The repetition of the opening sequence by Lisiecki, quite monolithic, hearkens to the D Minor Prelude. The left hand marches and the right hand sweeps across the plains in the so-called “Winter Wind” Etude in A Minor, Op. 25, No. 11. Lisiecki exerts a constant tempo and aerial stamina so that the cumulative effect includes passion, tenderness, and inevitability, all at once. The last, the “Ocean” Etude in C Minor, receives an enigmatic “soft focus” from Lisiecki, more in common with Darre than with Arrau. He imparts a wonderful, graduated color and momentum upon the delicate colors and cross-rhythms of the piece, a four-voice fugal effect powerful and convincing, worthy of the greats who champion Chopin.

—Gary Lemco