Tall, slender, and self-effacing, Jan Lisiecki looks like the friend your teenage son likes to shoot hoops with. But once he sits down in front of the piano, he morphs into one of today’s most celebrated young keyboard artists. The Canadian pianist lived up to his reputation when he played Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
A short but happy life
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) completed this intriguing concerto, whose moods range from the tempestuous to the halcyon, when he was 22. History is filled with stories about the tortured lives of the musical masters, but Mendelssohn led a charmed existence until his untimely death at 38. One of the great child prodigies of all time, he had composed symphonies, overtures, chamber works, and performed on a grand tour of Europe before he set his sights on composing a concerto for piano and orchestra.
While not in the same league as the piano concertos of Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, Mendelssohn’s First can blossom under the touch of pianists who are unafraid to explore its depths and take a few emotional risks. Lisiecki is such a pianist.
Fortunately for listeners, Nézet-Séguin is such a conductor. Between the two, they unwrapped Mendelssohn’s ripe bundle of sound, glorying in parries probably a bit more robust than any the composer had imagined and exposing the tenderness of phrases that whisper longingly for notice. Bombastic is not a word one generally associates with Mendelssohn, but no other word will do for parts of this intricately woven concerto.
Beyond pounding the keys
Lisiecki crafted a musical vision at once cerebral and visceral. There are times when a pianist needs to pound the keys, and Lisiecki does just that in the opening movement, but he also has the power to release cascades of bright, fleet-footed notes that shimmer like stars. Similarly, Nézet-Séguin, conducting without a baton, directs our attention to trumpets we may not have noticed before and suspends time as the piano’s voice sinks in a halo of strings, then a cello choir.
It is always a pleasure to watch Nézet-Séguin’s balletic conducting style. Have I mentioned before how much he looks like a taiji master or boxer? His smiles and encouraging expressions leave no doubt that he loves his work, and that we should, too.
Lisiecki’s encore was, if possible, even more affecting: Mendelssohn’s Venetianisches Gondellied, which he played with heartbreaking tenderness.
Haydn and Schubert
The program began with a Haydn overture, whose title may be obscure, but whose melodies ring with familiarity. The Overture to L’isola disabitata (The Deserted Island) is yet another excuse to marvel at the seemingly unending inventiveness of one of music’s most imaginative composers.
The second half of the program was a performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major (“The Great”). If Mendelssohn had a charmed life, Schubert’s was fraught with poverty and obscurity. He composed some 1,500 works at breakneck speed and succumbed to a maddeningly early death at age 31 in 1828. Schubert was not commissioned to write a “great” symphony: he was simply driven to do so in or around 1825, and it comes as no surprise to learn that there was no complete public performance of it during his lifetime.
The nearly hourlong work is massive, in the spirit of his idol Beethoven, with a full orchestra including three trombones (and a beguiling oboe solo in the second movement played to perfection by Peter Smith). Yet it is not a huge favorite of concert audiences, nor is it mine. While created at the dawn of the Romantic Era, it lacks the passion and introspection that sweeps us away in Brahms and Mendelssohn and has, to my ear, a hard, cold relentlessness and forced good cheer. This big, bold, long composition is light years away from Schubert’s incomparable chamber and piano music, which led Benjamin Britten to call the last year of Schubert’s life the most miraculous in the history of music.
The revelation we thought we knew
Nonetheless, it is a work of much potential for the conductor and orchestra willing to give their all and become a full partner with the composer in creating a commanding musical landscape. Nézet-Séguin does just this, with a tremendous attention to contrasts in volume and pacing, diamond-sharp clarity, and a focus that reveals both clever detail and the big picture as the work strides inexorably from the opening horns in unison (flawlessly played by Jen Montone and Ernie Tovarto) to its explosive conclusion.
Those who think the role of a conductor is to keep time would do well to study the manner in which Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra dig deep into the DNA of a work and resurrect what they understand as its hidden intent without violating its essential nature. In their hands, a work we thought we knew became a revelation.
What, When, Where
Mendelssohn and Schubert. Franz Josef Haydn, Overture to L’isola disabitata; Felix Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25; Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944. Jan Lisiecki, piano. The Philadelphia Orchestra. March 7, 9, and 10, 2019, at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
The Kimmel Center is wheelchair-accessible. Wheelchair-accessible seats or upholstered, loose chairs are available for purchase online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999/(215) 893-1999 TTY, or emailing [email protected].