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Lisiecki Finds Passion and Joy in Mendelssohn's Piano Music

Jan Lisiecki
Christoph Köstlin
Deutsche Grammophon
Jan Lisiecki

Jan Lisiecki's 2019 album, with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, is an energetic, sparkling tribute to Felix Mendelssohn.

Hear Jan Lisiecki on Mendelssohn and his music, as well as his Tanglewood performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto, in an interview with WCRB's Brian McCreath:

This is part of a series of WCRB blog posts that bring you a personal perspective on richly rewarding CD releases you may not encounter otherwise.

More often than not, conversations about Mendelssohn revel in his exemplary compositional skills as a mere teenager. With 24-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki’s latest album, we get a chance to explore a variety of Mendelssohn’s brilliant works for piano, which reveal his ability to straddle the line between the Classical and Romantic styles of writing.

Like Mendelssohn, Lisiecki debuted at the age of 9, and stunned the world with his ability to perform pieces with a sensitivity that was beyond his years. BBC Magazine aptly describes him as a young musician with a “mature musicality” and ability to play with “sparkling technique,” both of which remain true for his interpretations of Mendelssohn’s pieces in this album.

Lisiecki is accompanied by the New York City-based, conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for both the First and Second Piano Concerti. In working with this orchestra, Lisiecki notes, “I really love that not only every musician is involved, but every musician has equal say... The result is that it’s very much like chamber music.” While Lisiecki normally found himself either alone or simply with a conductor to listen back to recordings, he says that “the musicians... they’d all be curious to hear what they had done... The dedication and responsibility they took upon themselves was very inspiring.”

Lisiecki tackles the Piano Concerto No. 1 with a controlled, fiery energy that enables him to balance the classical and romantic elements of the piece, performing with delicacy and deliberation. The second movement includes some truly beautiful exchanges between the orchestra and the soloist – you can really feel magic in the way they complement and match each others’ energy and emotion.

The same is true for the Piano Concerto No. 2, but with an entirely different mood. The album’s liner notes reveal that to Lisiecki, this concerto is reminiscent of Schumann’s music, in that it’s “less secure, it’s uncertain, it’s searching.” With the Rondo capriccioso, Lisiecki goes all-out; in the Presto leggiero, he embodies the elfin spirit of Mendelssohn; and he never loses the drama and power needed to play the Andante.

The “Venetian Gondola Song,” from Mendelssohn’s  well-known Songs Without Words, allows the album to end on a beautifully serene cantabile. It doesn’t quite have the same sparkly, light feel as his other pieces, but it certainly draws you in with its calmness.

From the energetic performance of the First Concerto to the darker, more volatile Second Concerto, and finally to the peaceful “Venetian Gondola Song," listening to this album takes you on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Through it all, Lisiecki’s youthful energy infuses Mendelssohn’s music with sparkling clarity, making this an endlessly, and pleasantly, surprising listen.