Loud Living in Cambridge

I was most fortunate this week to hear Jan Lisiecki in an outstanding recital at the West Road Concert Hall, Department of Music, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, on 26 February 2024, in a concert sponsored by Camerata Musica Cambridge. West Road Hall is a fine modern hall with very nice acoustics, and was fully packed. The hall management turned off the lights over the audience (as in a theatre), which should happen more often. Perhaps that darkness helped create the atmosphere of great seriousness this performance had. I later learnt that this recital was the twelfth time in the series that Mr Lisiecki had played the Preludes program.

The program was:

  • Chopin: Prelude in D-flat, Op28/15
  • Chopin: Prelude in A-flat, B. 86
  • Bach: Prelude in C, BWV846, WTK1
  • Rachmaninov: Prelude in D minor, Op23/3
  • Szymanowski: Preludes 1-3 from Nine Preludes Op1
  • Messiaen: Preludes 1-3 from Preludes pour piano (1928-9)
  • Chopin: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op45
  • Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op3/2
  • Gorecki: Preludes 1 and 4 from Four Preludes Op1
  • Bach: Prelude in Cminor, BWV847, WTK1
  • Rachmaninov: Prelude in G minor, Op23/5
  • INTERVAL
  • Chopin: 24 Preludes Op28

This was an outstanding performance. From the moment he walked on stage – long, purposeful strides, looking straight ahead (not down, nor at the audience), a man on a mission – and his opening sounds – the insistent, throbbing repeated notes of Chopin’s well-known Raindrop Prelude, Mr Lisiecki announced a very great seriousness of purpose. This was to be a performance where nothing superficial or sentimental would be played, a performance where both the music selected and the performance of it artfully compelled one’s full attention. The playing was strongly assertive, and there was nothing timid or diffident about Mr Lisiecki’s performance. Hearing Gorecki’s challenging etude-like Prelude #4 followed immediately by an extremely fast rendition of Bach’s C-minor Prelude turned the latter also into an etude. Co-ordinating precisely the two hands at such high speed was a feat beyond imagining, until we heard it with our very own ears. We now knew what Bach had been up to recently in the afterlife – learning from Ligeti!

The main event was the cycle of preludes of Chopin’s Op 28. Over the last two months, I have been fortunate to hear this cycle played 5 times (by Messrs Emmanuel Despax, Boris Giltburg and three times by Kasparas Mikužis), and Mr Lisiecki’s was the most forceful, fastest and spirited of these interpretations. Partly this was due to the speed at which he played the fast preludes – all at breakneck pace, and so turning these preludes into challenging etudes also. He clearly has the rare technical chops to do this. In some passages, the speed blurred the sound (especially in the lower registers), which, for me, diminished a little my musical pleasure. Perhaps my hearing could not process the sounds as quickly as Mr Lisiecki could create them. And perhaps in his afterlife, Chopin had been learning about tone clusters from Henry Cowell.

Mr Lisiecki’s was a very serious and assertive performance of this circle of flowers contemplating the face of death. Like the preludes before it, the ending of the final prelude, with its tolling low bell, was loud and forceful. As I wrote about one of the performances of this cycle by Mr Mikužis, this ending showed Mr Lisiecki raging, raging against the dying of the light.

Mr Lisiecki played one encore, a Romance by Schumann. As he sat down to play the encore, he remarked that the concert had comprised a prelude leading to a prelude leading to a prelude leading to . . . death. So best, he thought, to counter that with love. This was a quite fitting dessert. Unlike evening concerts in London, where people often have late trains to catch, no one in the audience left early.

This recital was a most intelligent program performed with a seriousness and integrity of purpose combined with a forceful intellectual assertiveness, a combination I found enormously compelling. I have not heard such a combination often before. Even while personally disagreeing on a few of Mr Lisiecki’s interpretations, I was thrilled that I was able to be present at this very exceptional performance. After a recital of preludes to death, Mr Lisiecki could, with Émile Zola, justly say:

“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”

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