Between appearances in Germany, Spain, China and Australia this year, Jan Lisiecki, has also found time to release an album featuring all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos. Recorded late last year in a series of live performances at the Konzerthaus Berlin: the release is the Calgary native’s sixth recording for Deutsche Grammophon. Together with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Lisiecki reveals and revels in signature romantic sounds, while taking listeners on a playful if smart musical journey.
The recording (which will have its audiovisual counterpart released in early 2020) captures the warm, rich tones of the orchestra and its perfect pianist complement in Lisiecki’s delicate touch. His careful shading nicely recalls earlier releases (notably Chopin: Works for Piano & Orchestra, from 2013) and ties the early and later works of Beethoven together to offer a sonic journey that smartly explores the composer’s creative development, especially as it applies to rhythm.
From Beethoven the near-classicist to Beethoven the experimentalist to Beethoven the revolutionary, Lisiecki and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields provide a lesson in compositional development, using the intersection of rhythm and melody as a base point. The Second Concerto, originally written as a show piece of the German virtuoso’s keyboard talents, is here transformed into a lushly romantic expression of youthful yearning, with soloist and conductor playing a teasing game of catch and release; technical aspects are played down in favour of textural richness. The final movement is replete with graceful flourishes and bravado, but not in a needlessly aggressive way. A pungent urgency is underlined in the first movement of the Third Concerto, with smart employment of theatrical dynamics.
Lisiecki’s jaunty phrasing in the first movement of the Fifth Concerto is a playful counterpoint to the briskly paced performance. With emphasis on the work’s percussive nature, the piano is integrated within a sound sphere that speaks of rhythm as much as melody, giving the piece a dance-like feel that transcends other, more macho presentations. That doesn’t mean it lacks grandeur; the academy and Lisiecki are full partners in presenting a performance that is at once loudly epic and whisperingly intimate, with a quiet beauty cleverly inserted between its luxuriantly meandering folds.
Beethoven as composer of quiet contemplation? Yes, say Lisiecki and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields – just don’t forget to get up and dance, too.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said this album is Lisiecki's fifth recording for Deutsche Grammophon. In fact, it is his sixth.