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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 18, No. 7

Bloom of Youth: Jan Lisiecki

by Joseph So / June 1, 2013

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How does it feel to be 18 and on top of the world? Just ask Jan Lisiecki, Canada’s newest piano superstar. Born in Calgary to Polish parents, Lisiecki took up piano at five and made his orchestral debut at nine. In just a few years, he’s already reached the top – playing in important venues with great orchestras. In 2012, Jan had the honor of opening the Chopin 200th birthday celebrations in the composer’s birthplace, in Poland. Now a second-year student at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto studying with Marc Durand, Lisiecki maintains a hectic schedule of some 100 performances a year. How many 18-year-olds can boast having an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, arguably the most prestigious recording label in classical music? At the time of signing, Jan was all of 15, the youngest pianist to sign with the recording giant.

Lisiecki recorded his first solo recital of Chopin Etudes for DG at Koerner Hall in January. I sat in on one of the sessions. Present were Ute Fesquet, Jan’s record producer, Jan’s mother, and the recording engineers. It was fascinating to observe how he works – all business and no nonsense, sitting at the piano with headphones on to communicate with the control booth, tirelessly playing one take after another. “He’s maturing before our eyes,” beams Fesquet. “You can listen and watch how a piece is growing from take to take. He knows exactly what he wants to achieve in this music.” Lisiecki is mature beyond his years, and there’s sincerity and depth to his music making. After the recording session, we sat down in the green room for a little chat.

How do you like the recording process versus a live performance?

JL: I try to make every take into a live performance – I play like I’m playing for an audience. Ninety-nine percent of my takes are complete takes. That’s how I like to work.

How would you define yourself as an artist?

JL: That’s a difficult but interesting question! I think different people will hear different things (in my playing), but I try to show how beautifully each piece is already written by the composer, not how well I can play – how fast or how perfectly.

You already have a brilliant technique and poetic imagination. What else do you think makes a true artist?

JL: You have to be a well-rounded person to be an artist – I work on that all the time. To play really well, you have to have something behind (the playing) – the thoughts, the experiences. For me, it’s going to museums, galleries, walking around the cities in Europe, trying to learn something about the place, meeting people. This makes you into an artist, not just a technician. You can be a very good technician if you practice eight hours a day, work and work; you can play the Etudes really cleanly, but you are not telling a story, sharing your thoughts.

Your career has blossomed without major competitions. What are your thoughts on competitions?

JL:  For many they are great – to be heard, to have performance experience. That being said, for me the primary goal in a competition is to perform. To get to the finals, (my goal) is to perform with an orchestra. That’s much more important to me than first prize or money. But I’m thankful that I don’t have to do competitions. I am an anti-competitive person.

How do you foresee your career developing in the future? What will you be playing a year or five years from now?

JL: A year from now? That far ahead I know – it’s in my calendar (chuckle). Lots of orchestras, in Canada, US, Europe, Asia. In the future? I just hope I’ll continue to perform, to love what I do. I hope to get an education – I have two more years (for the Bachelor of Music at the Glenn Gould School).

What are you interested in, outside of music?

JL: Theatre, opera, painting, sculpture…all kinds of art. I love it. Outside of the arts, I love to travel…it’s my second favourite thing after performing.

What’s your favourite place so far in your travels?

JL: I don’t really have a favourite place. I can say one thing for sure – after having traveled to so many countries, I love Canada. I love coming home. I can’t imagine moving anywhere else.

Sainte-Pétronille (Aug. 1), Orford (Aug. 3), Stratford Summer Music (Aug. 8-10)
Email contest@lascena.ca to win a Lisiecki CD.

Chopin: Etudes Op. 10 & 25
Jan Lisiecki, piano
Deutsche Grammophon CD 4791039

This is the second (and first solo) disc for Deutsche Grammophon by Canada’s newest piano superstar, Jan Lisiecki. These Chopin Etudes were recorded in January 2013 at Koerner Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where Lisiecki is a student. Sitting in on one of the sessions, I was impressed by his power of concentration, poetic imagination, and work ethic. With this very popular repertoire, Lisiecki is breaking into an extraordinarily crowded field of heavyweights past and present. We’re talking about a roster that includes Ashkenazy, Perahia, Pollini, Horowitz, Argerich, Cortot, Freire, Cherkassky – the list goes on. The last time DG recorded these pieces was way back in 1972 with the great Maurizio Pollini! How does the young Lisiecki compare?  Typically opinions vary, but to my ears, there’s a great deal to enjoy. There is no question that he has the technical prowess to do even the most demanding pieces justice, such as Op 10, No. 12 and Op. 25, No. 10. There is a maturity and a natural, unaffected quality to his playing that’s appealing. That said, when it comes to depth of expression and musicality, it’s too soon to say Lisiecki has reached the exulted levels of some of the great ones mentioned above. Only 17 at the time of recording, Lisiecki has youth on his side, and given his prodigious talent, there’s no doubt that he will continue to develop. For now, we have a young pianist of great promise, in a repertoire where he shows uncommon affinity and flair. The recorded sound is clear and warm. The booklet has a short essay by Michael Church in four languages, plus photos, including one of his recent recital at Koerner Hall. Highly recommended.  JKS

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