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New Classical Tracks: Pianist Jan Lisiecki brings Mendelssohn masterpieces to life

Pianist Jan Lisiecki Holger Hage
4min 59sec : New Classical Tracks: Jan Lisiecki
17min 29sec : New Classical Tracks: Jan Lisiecki (extended)

Jan Lisiecki/Orpheus Chamber Orchestra — Mendelssohn (DG)

"Mendelssohn wrote very elaborate music. It's music that has a lot of notes to say a very simple thing. And I love that because once you've overcome all the notes, everything comes to light — it becomes so simple, as if it was always in front of you."

Jan Lisiecki is a 23-year-old Canadian-born pianist who's recorded works by Mozart, Chopin, Schumann. On his latest release, he's diving into the Romantic masterpieces of Felix Mendelssohn with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

"Of course, the music is from various periods of Mendelssohn's life. But what I think the recording shows is that Mendelssohn had his own language, his own sort of approach to writing, especially for the piano from the very beginning. Of course, the first concerto was written when Mendelssohn was very young. It already has a character, has a style, it has a certain way of approaching the piano which continues as a common thread throughout Mendelssohn's life."

He was writing this for a love interest at the time. Do you think it might have impacted how buoyant and light it sounds?

"I think there's so many examples — from Chopin to Beethoven to Mendelssohn, in this case — who, writing for their loves put so much more into the music, and I always hope that that comes across also when it's being performed."

What is unique about this first concerto? What would you like us to listen for?

'Mendelssohn' (DG)

"What is especially interesting on this recording is working with Orpheus. And the collaboration with Orpheus with no conductor led to a perhaps slightly different final result while also not being a compromise."

The 17 variations follow that first piano concerto, and these are labeled as 'Serious variations,' and they do have a serious tone to them. Can you talk about what the composer was experiencing? These were written later in life.

"To me, what strikes me the most is the way he structured the variations. It's not a theme with many different takes on what it could be, but there is this emotional arc to it from beginning to end from this very elegant chorale almost that is the theme to the incredibly on-the-edge-of-your-seat coda that concludes them."

The Piano Concerto No. 2 is a completely different mood from his first piano concerto — it's darker, it's filled with more emotions — and I found that interesting because he wrote it shortly after he was married, right after his honeymoon.

"The way he once again uses that emotion and writes for the piano — it's still this elegant and delicate writing, but it's very charged. And for that reason, this concerto I think is even more challenging to perform than the first and more challenging to understand as an artist and as an audience member as well."

What was most memorable about either putting this recording together or the tour of this music with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra? Is there something that comes to mind, or maybe a good behind-the-scenes story you could share?

"The most memorable moment was going into the booth. And here we suddenly have 15 to 20 musicians come into the booth and all of them were listening, all of them were curious. All of them wanted to hear something, improve upon something. And to see that dedication and to see that interest from every musician that forms Orpheus was inspirational to me and most certainly is unique."

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Resources

Mendelssohn (Amazon)