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Concert review: Chopin a real presence in Jan Lisiecki piano recital at Koerner Hall

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On Sunday afternoon in Koerner Hall as part of the Invesco Piano Concerts, Jan Lisiecki performed both the Op. 10 and Op. 25 Études by Frédéric Chopin, the romantic master of the piano, with great subtlety and charm. This was a concert to be savoured by those who love piano music from the romantic period in general, and Chopin’s works in particular.

These Études were Chopin’s experimentation with piano techniques and were composed during his early career with the first opus published when he was 23, and the second one at 27.

Chopin was active in the salons of Paris where he became acquainted with Franz Liszt. It was during this time when he composed these Études, reflecting the influence of the most virtuosic techniques that were en vogue at the time, as well as Chopin’s own journey in articulating his own musical and artistic vision for the piano.

Lisiecki performed with great perceptiveness and balance of the layers of sonorities, without ever letting the demanding technique overpower his performance. He retained clear mastery and control of execution. The harmonic shifts and plays were properly savoured, and the brilliant runs were a thrill to experience.

After the first few Études, Lisiecki appeared to be more at ease physically, allowing some more of his personality to show through his body language. Such short bursts of intense music leaves the audience wanting, but it offered Jan an opportunity to showcase his ability to interpret and weave a musical narrative between the pieces in a manner that seemed far beyond his years.

From the tender and sweet, to the grandiose and tumultuous pathos, each Étude’s distinct character and voice shone through. The universal human experiences of love, reflection, passion and struggle are captured in Chopin’s music and have spoken to generations of artists, of which Lisiecki is certainly one.

The second set of Études has a richer and more sophisticated musical vocabulary. While technically more demanding, Lisiecki managed to fall even farther into the background, even as his impossibly light touch runs through the infamously difficult passages.

The 19th century is maddeningly close to the age of technological advances that allowed audio recordings. The ethos is close enough to our times for us to be able to relate, but we can never be really sure if we are performing the way the composer would have liked his or her work to be heard.

In this concert, many aspects of Chopin as an artist were clearly articulated. What left me breathless was not the showmanship but the experience of Chopin as a real presence, not merely notes on a musical score.

Perhaps Jan’s performing style will change later on in his career, but right now, the most charming and endearing quality of this young Canadian performer is his understated presence, and his commitment to letting the music take centre stage.

A Deutsche Grammophon release in April will feature the same program, recorded in Koerner Hall in January.

Margaret Lam

To find out more about Margaret Lam, visit

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