April 2, 2015

Cute puppies sell anything...

I have nothing against cute boys and girls exploiting the advantages of their phenotype, be it in modeling or in soliciting sugar daddies on Craigslist.  But when it comes to serious music, I would expect a musician's success to be based on more artistically relevant factors than just 'cute puppy' looks.  Which, of course, makes me a hopeless imbecile - a depressing self-assessment, true, but amply justified by the meteoric career trajectory of the Canadian-born, still very young,  and singularly mediocre pianist Jan Lisiecki (b. 1995).

My first encounter with Lisiecki was through a live recording from the 2010 Music Mountain Festival (Connecticut, USA) where he played the chamber version of Chopin's F-minor piano concerto with the Penderecki String Quartet.  It took me about three minutes of listening to the solo part to become convinced that, as a 15-year old, Lisiecki had already mastered a thoroughly generic piano tone and a perfectly wooden way of shaping melodic lines.  This first impression made me feel quite confident that the performing future of this teenager will be pretty much limited to family gatherings, since only loving and patient relatives are likely to endure more than a few minutes of this kind of playing... 
     That same year Lisiecki was signed to a recording contract by one of the biggest and most prestigious classical record labels (Deutsche Grammophon).  Two years later the 17-year old pianist made his debut with the New York Philharmonic, playing the Schumann concerto with the  same combination of interpretative vacuity  and tonal blandness.  (This performance was streamed on the orchestra's website.)   To Lisiecki's misfortune the attending New York Times critic was not Anthony Tommasini, who always has nice things to say about pianists so long as they happen to be cute twinks or fashionably attired hunks.  Instead it was Zachary Woolfe who summed up the most salient features of Lisiecki's playing by noting that "[f]rom the work’s impetuous opening bars, Mr. Lisiecki’s sound ... remained precisely the same through the rest of the concerto, with little variety of color...  He played all the notes but suggested few of the extroverted charms of a work that jumps from nocturne to mania."
After reading that New York Times review I felt pretty sure that the time had finally come for Lisiecki to go back to playing in nursing homes and at Polish weddings in his native Canada.  Yet less than two years later the 19-year old gave an all-Chopin recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  Driven by morbid curiosity I listened to the broadcast of that Concertgebouw recital only to be impressed by the remarkable consistency of this pianist.  Even in miniatures (waltzes, nocturnes) he had absolutely nothing worthwhile to say about the music he played.  But the most resounding nothing was reserved for the sole big work on the program - the complete Preludes Op.28 - on which Lisiecki lavished all the interpretative vacuum and pianistic monotony he had nurtured and perfected since the beginning of his career as a concert pianist.

Of course, some readers may wonder if my harsh judgment of this impossibly cute blond pianist is nothing but the homoerotic rage of a frustrated Quasimodo whose romantic experiences have been limited to slovenly truck drivers in the rest stops along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  With this in mind, I thought it would be well to offer the recording of Lisiecki's Amsterdam performance of Chopin's Preludes and let the curious readers judge for themselves.


RonanM said...

It's a moot point as to whether Chopin ever intended the préludes to be performed as a single composition (and the complete nocturnes certainly are like a feast of meringues – rapidly sickening). But I know what you mean about the inevitability factor. I cherish a recording of Etsuko Hirose doing just that - a risky, not-always-successful performance that has a compelling vision behind it.
I think more of Lisecki than you do, except I can't spell his name as well as you do (it would be ironic if I'd spelled it right there, but I don't believe I have)

SW said...

Thanks for your comments about J L. I thought I was the only one who feels the same way about this lackluster "talent"! I'm a professional classical pianist and have had numerous heated arguments about J L being promoted because he's "cute" and blond. Heard him in Dallas, Tx in Chopin's 1. It was interminable and if one didn't know any better, one would blame Chopin for writing such a boring, rambling piece and seriously questions his validity as a composer. All the phrases were shaped the same way--often starting off slower, speeds up a little and tapering off at the end. Tonally uninteresting because it's mainly the same color---grayish. Even his encore was wrong. The opening measures of Chopin's c# min Nocturne were played with incorrect rhythm. Listen to it on YouTube and check the score, either Henle or Wiener Urtext. This very minor infraction in learning shows a lot about his training and fastidiousness as a true musician.

Boom said...

Ronan and SW,

Thanks for taking time to comment on Lisiecki. I thought it might be fun for you to compare his Preludes to yet another live recording, this time from Yulianna Avdeeva's 2013 recital in Mainz, Germany (I captured the 192 kbs webcast myself):


Here is one pianist who has a lot to say about this music, which is something I appreciate even if I don't agree with some of her interpretative decisions.