Surprise! Jan Lisiecki releases the complete Beethoven piano concertos

On this unexpected 3-CD set, he plays all 5 concertos with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

On this unexpected 3-CD set, he plays all 5 concertos with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

'I hope this recording demonstrates how interwoven these concertos are — both their similarities and differences — and can be enjoyed as a whole.' — Jan Lisiecki (Christoph Köstlin/Deutsche Grammophon)

Getting a head start on the impending Beethoven 2020 festivities, Canada's Jan Lisiecki has today surprised us with Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos, his fifth album for the Deutsche Grammophon label.

The three-CD set was recorded in December 2018 at Berlin's Konzerthaus, one of the stops on Lisiecki's tour with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, when he was filling in for an indisposed Murray Perahia.

"The substitution for Murray Perahia was presented to me as a proposal to play any two Beethoven concertos," Lisiecki explained to CBC Music recently. "When I understood the concept of the tour, I requested that if I am indeed to substitute, the original structure would be upheld and I would play all five concertos on tour and in Berlin."

The recording, produced in a matter of a few days, was quickly chosen by Lisiecki's label, Deutsche Grammophon, to launch its Beethoven 2020 rollout. "The recording is entirely live, we could only record the rehearsal and the concert; no touch-up sessions were available. The final result, I hope, is a reflection of a very successful and dynamic live cycle of these concertos."

As with his February 2019 Mendelssohn release with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for this set of Beethoven concertos Lisiecki and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performed without a conductor.

"I love working with a conductor, and I also thoroughly enjoy working directly with the orchestra musicians," he notes. "The vigour, the focus, the musicianship are all heightened by the direct contact between the musicians and the soloist, and we do everything as one. It is often said that all orchestral performances are an enlarged form of chamber music, but I think this holds true especially in such a compressed setting."

Whereas on his last two albums, Lisiecki played relatively neglected repertoire (Mendelssohn concertos, rare Chopin), on his latest he's laying down some of classical music's best-known works.

'I strongly believe in recording music that I feel comfortable with at the time, and for which project the circumstances are right.' — Jan Lisiecki (Christian Köstlin/Deutsche Grammophon)

"One may ask the question, 'Why do we need yet another Beethoven cycle record?'" he allows. "The same could be posited regarding live concerts, and I think classical music audiences know the answer: every performance keeps the music alive, gives it energy and currency in today's world. I am certain my interpretations will evolve over time — in fact, that is what I strive for. However, I am satisfied with this capture of the December 2018 tour with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields."

Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, particularly, has played an important role in Lisiecki's burgeoning career. He played it on short notice in 2013, replacing Martha Argerich, with conductor Claudio Abbado. It's also the work with which he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2016 alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

"The opening bars of the fourth concerto are pure magic," he points out, "but [it's] one of the most challenging works to begin onstage." He also singles out the coda of the third concerto's first movement as a highlight. "The intensity and drama are unparalleled."

Lisiecki relishes the extra attention that will be paid to Beethoven over the coming year. "Humankind needs to celebrate such immense genius, as it serves as a reminder of the great things we are capable of," he reflects. "[Beethoven's] music holds eternal appeal, and I believe it will be important to the world for years to come."

Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos is available via Deutsche Grammophon and the major music-streaming services. Lisiecki's next performances in Canada will be in Calgary on Oct. 4 and 5 with the Calgary Philharmonic, in Ottawa on Oct. 15 with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and in Kingston on Oct. 16 with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Beethoven: Complete Piano Concertos is Jan Lisiecki's 5th album for Deutsche Grammophon, his 2nd of 2019. (Deutsche Grammophon)