Jan Lisiecki

Jan Lisiecki revels in the brilliance and beauty of Chopin’s lesser-known works for piano and orchestra in new album for Deutsche Grammophon

In 2010, Jan Lisiecki’s revelatory recording of Chopin’s Piano Concertos astounded the critics. The Polish-Canadian soloist, in his early teens at the time, marked the bicentenary of the composer’s birth with interpretations that drew favourable comparisons with the finest in the catalogue. The disc also led Deutsche Grammophon to sign an exclusive recording deal with the prodigious young artist. His latest DG album embraces the rest of Chopin’s output for piano and orchestra, rarely recorded yet utterly compelling compositions crammed with exquisite melodies, youthful exuberance and dashing display. Lisiecki realised his dream of recording the composer’s complete orchestral repertoire in company with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester and its Polish principal guest conductor, Krzysztof Urbański, ideal partners in a project touched throughout by the spirit of adventure and rediscovery.

Jan Lisiecki’s Chopin: Works for Piano and Orchestra, set for international release on 10 March 2017, comprises pieces in the so-called “brilliant style”, a form of virtuosic pianism cultivated in the early 1800s by some of the leading performer-composers of the day, including Hummel, Kalkbrenner and Moscheles. During his formative years in Warsaw, Chopin applied the style to such works for piano and orchestra as the Grande Polonaise brillante Op.22 and Rondo à la krakowiak in F major Op.14. The notion of brilliance likewise governs his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni Op.2 and the Fantasy on Polish Airs Op.13.

Chopin’s works for piano and orchestra, for all their pianistic twists and turns, owe much to the melodic extravagance of Italian bel canto opera and the natural eloquence of Polish folksong. They also contain early traces of the composer’s mature style, which Lisiecki echoes in the album’s final track, the evergreen Nocturne in C sharp minor of 1830. “Many of the pieces on our new album will be unfamiliar to most listeners,” he observes. “It feels as if we’re saying things about them for the first time. I think it’s wonderful that we’re introducing a few of Chopin’s pieces for piano and orchestra to the DG catalogue. It’s been very rewarding for me to explore these early works and it’s a great pleasure to be able to share them with others. Chopin’s two piano concertos are very well known and have been recorded many times. Having recorded them myself, I’m pleased to complete the catalogue by recording his other orchestral concert pieces. They have such beauty and elegance about them, as well as signs of what Chopin achieved in his later works.”

Lisiecki and Urbański have performed live together to great acclaim and, enhanced perhaps by their shared Polish roots, their fellow-feeling made them the perfect match for this Chopin project. On receiving Lisiecki’s invitation, Urbański immediately thought of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, knowing it to possess the sound quality and beautiful palette of colours required to support the pianist as he performed the magic inherent in the solo part. The warmth and depth of its string sound, the distinctive tone colours produced by its wind section and its players’ readiness to follow Lisiecki’s lead rank high on the pianist’s gratitude list. Both he and Urbański point to the close relationship between the pianistic athleticism and the simplicity of the orchestral parts in Chopin’s compositions, the former hallmarked by rapid scales and scintillating arpeggios, the latter occupied with long sustained notes and simple four-square melodies. “This mix of extremes, of high virtuosity and sheer simplicity, creates obvious challenges,” notes Lisiecki. “I am constantly moving forward in the piano part – there’s little room for me to adjust to the orchestra. The only way to make it work is to create a sound that is unanimous, which is what we achieved together.”

Chopin’s blend of complex and simple elements, he adds, calls for an unconditional partnership between soloist and orchestra. “Yes, the soloist and orchestra have their own identities. But the ongoing dialogue between the two must sound as if it’s taking place in the same room, not in separate worlds. Every pianist will approach Chopin in a different way and bring a different character to it. I think the common foundation of his work, however, comes from the incredible combination of melody, the harmony which colours the melody, and the rubato which gives movement to both. We’re talking about basic elements, which sounds so simple – but it’s not! Chopin somehow intertwined those qualities in ways which feel entirely natural, allowing the music to flow. He created lyrical melodic lines on the piano, surpassing everything that you could imagine possible from what is, after all, a percussive instrument. The piano, in Chopin’s hands, sounds capable of doing anything, which reflects his remarkable skill.”

The composer also takes pride of place in Lisiecki’s 2017 schedule. Beginning with a recital tour in Canada and Europe, featuring the Two Nocturnes Op.48 and Scherzo No.1 Op.20, the pianist then embarks on a three-city tour of the First Piano Concerto with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, taking in the Elbphilharmonie, Munich’s Philharmonie Gasteig and Frankfurt’s Alte Oper. Other highlights include performances of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 with the Orchestre de Paris and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a return to Piano Concerto No.1 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.