Jan Lisiecki's guide to Chopin
In March, Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki released Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra, his fourth album for Deutsche Grammophon. It's a collection of lesser-known repertoire, some of it entering the yellow label's catalogue for the first time.
"Even within the music industry, there are people who are only vaguely aware or don't even know that these works exist," explained Lisiecki during a recent phone conversation with us. "It's always incredibly rewarding to find music within a very famous composer's repertoire that isn't known, yet has value, is not second-tier writing — this is still top-class compositional output."
The new album was just one highlight of a concert season that also included a European tour with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra — "one of those concerts that stands out even amid a hundred in a year" — in addition to a performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 at the opening festival of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Now 22, Lisiecki is one of today's brightest piano stars.
In advance of his busy summer touring schedule, including performances on June 14 and 16 at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival and a whole series of Canadian dates in July, we caught up with Lisiecki for a long discussion, primarily about Chopin, the composer with whom he's most closely associated.
Below: Lisiecki's guide to Chopin, in his own words. While not an exhaustive survey, it gives his insights into a range of topics relating to the "poet of the piano."
"There's definitely, undoubtedly a Polish connection in all of Chopin's music. That's indisputable. The dances, rhythms, some of the melodies he incorporates — that's all definitely Polish and I think that speaks to his genius and abilities as a composer.
"Growing up, Chopin lived in Warsaw, which at the time wasn't just a purely Polish city. Poland was occupied so there were a lot of different cultures mingling, even if not in the multicultural sense that we imagine today. And he travelled quite a bit. He lived in France, of course, and in Spain. But one thing to note: his music didn't markedly change depending on where he lived or travelled at the time. Unlike some other composers, he didn't incorporate local elements — local themes, local tunes — as much. He stayed really true to his Polish roots.
"There was always also this longing for Poland and this evocation of the melodies, rhythms and landscapes he remembered. And I think, in a way, when you leave some place, when you haven't seen somebody [in a long time], you often have a completely different and often more beautiful impression of that place or person. It seems to improve in your mind. So those positive memories that he associated with Poland and his roots — he definitely incorporated all of these things into his music."
Rubato in Chopin's music
"It's a known fact that Chopin was an opera lover and he enjoyed going to the opera and studying the scores.
"His melodies were always bel canto. His phrases were so long and there are noticeable breaths and I think that's the most important thing in rubato in Chopin. When people hear rubato they think of this Romanticism, but I think the best way to think of rubato, if you have to compare it to something, is to singing. Just like in the moment where you'd have to take a breath, that's often where you need to take time when playing on the piano. And only then does the rubato sound natural, and not something added. And not schmaltzy.
"One of the more effective ways of [playing] rubato without actually changing time so much is to not play the right and left hands together, as they appear on the score. If you delay an entrance of the right hand after the left in Mozart, it would feel awkward and odd. But in Chopin, if you do this, it heightens tension, it creates different harmonies, it changes some emotion and gives momentum to the phrase, to the line. And that's something that I think is unique to Chopin's music, and I have never really encountered it, or at least [seen it] used so significantly, in other writing."
Rewards of playing Chopin
"Everything we've said so far would make it seem like Chopin is incredibly complicated to play [laughs].
"[But] Chopin's music is so well written for our instrument, there isn't much that we have to force out of the piano. And I think that one of the reasons that so many pianists like playing Chopin is because it's unique, of course, but it's also rewarding. It feels soothing when you're playing it. It's not only accuracy, speed or volume; it's more about how you shape the music when you're performing. It's so much fun to be onstage and to be shaping that music, in the moment, with the audience. When you feel that there's a particularly beautiful sound, you can elongate it, you can enjoy it more, you can revel in silences. And that's something that Chopin's music somehow allows you to do."
"When you hear a Nocturne, the tendency is to associate a 'night' piece with something calming, such as a lullaby. And this is not the case in Chopin's Nocturnes. He uses this as a springboard to have incredible flexibility to write whatever he'd like — in a sense, to write tone poems, to tell some sort of a story.
"Of course, we don't know what he was trying to portray, but there is some vivid imagery in what he writes. Some of them are very peaceful and calm, serene; some are painful, others are quite turbulent, and it's incredible to see how he turns a genre that was essentially non-existent before he started writing it, into something that is important and holds such mass appeal. It's an incredibly powerful vessel for him to communicate.
"I think his nights were probably more turbulent than we like to think. He was of course sick, he was depressed, and I think he spent lots of sleepless nights. I'm sure he's drawing on personal experience in writing these Nocturnes."
"Chopin was one of the first to make Études something more than just a study to do in your studio when you're practising.
"Each [Étude] addresses a different [technical] concept, be it playing in thirds or in octaves or performing arpeggios. But of course ... we're not playing passage work here, this is Chopin writing these studies, and each one of them has life within it, this sort of secret, extra level that you reach once you've passed the finger challenge and gotten to actually making music out of it. And that's why his Études are special, and why they hold an appeal in the concert hall, and not only in the practice studio.
"All Chopin's works ... have some sort of storyline and structure, and it's harder to find in the smaller pieces. You have less time — and this is one of the challenges of playing, for example, the Préludes or the Études — you don't have this buffer zone to get the audience in with you; you don't often have an exposition, development and recapitulation to grow on the vein of the same concept. You have to take them in from the first note and tell everything that there is to be said the first time. You don't have a second chance.
"For example, in the first Scherzo, you have a lot of chances to say the same thing, the same in the concertos. There's the opportunity to change things the second time you play them. Yes, a concerto is 30 minutes of music, and one opus of Études is 30 minutes of music, but learning one opus of Études is an incomparably larger feat than playing one of the concertos because every single piece is individual, there are 12 of them [and] each one has something separate that you have to learn and to figure out, mentally, psychologically — [it's of] much greater scope than one monolithic sonata of any composer."
"It's not audience members who find [Chopin's piano concertos] lacking, it's usually other musicians who criticize how Chopin wrote for the orchestra, and how he used the instruments.
"There's lots of opinion on whether he actually orchestrated them himself, or if somebody else did. One thing we know for certain: it's his music for the piano, and it's as individual as everything else he wrote for the instrument. The orchestra, to me, should be treated more like an extra layer of sound — something that isn't found in any of Chopin's other writing. When the strings, for example, have long notes (which they don't like to play of course because it's strenuous and boring), it creates this palette of colours on which I can draw when I'm playing on the piano. [And] when there's a dialogue with one instrument, then we have to go back and remember that Chopin wrote for the piano at a time when it was a much smaller and weaker instrument and he played only in very small rooms, not really in large concert halls, so there has to be an effort to ensure that the melodies that are important in the orchestra come out and aren't covered up by the piano and the soloist."
The pianos of Chopin's day
"I have tried historic instruments, and to be perfectly honest, and from my viewpoint, I'm happy with where our instrument is now. It has most certainly improved.
"It would be like saying to actually know how to drive, you have to go and drive a Ford Model T, because that was the first mass-produced car. We've improved the car, so why would we go back to something that was worse?
"Yes, there's something to be said [for historical instruments]: the sound was different, there was less metal used and there was less tension in the strings. I think it's hard also to tell exactly how Chopin's instrument sounded at that time because all the ones that we have are older, and even if they've been well maintained, you never really know exactly. 'Was it exactly this way? How was it tuned? How were the hammers shaped? How was it voiced? What was the idea behind it?'
"That being said, there are certain things that I understood better when I played on an old instrument. Some of the Études, for example, are vastly easier on the old instrument than they are today. It's well known that the Études, some amongst them, are almost impossible to play [on a modern instrument] and on that piano, they were still challenging, but they were not as hard. The action is lighter, it's not as deep.
"But there's also way less possibility, actually, because you don't have this volume range. And volume is one of the biggest gifts that we have in the [modern] piano. The tendency and the easy way is to go to the extreme, which is usually the loud extreme of the volume range. But the piano also permits incredibly beautiful and round and long-lasting sound at a very quiet volume, and that is one of the nice changes ... between the old and the new."
"[In addition to the piano music], Chopin also wrote songs for voice and an incredible cello sonata. It's pretty much a piano sonata with a very difficult cello part. It's a vigorous and involving work. And it's Op. 65, so this is one of the last things Chopin wrote, and it holds this wisdom and this gravity somehow, and it's a rewarding experience to perform it.