Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Performances presented the first concert in their Young Masters Series. The featured artist for this occasion was the eighteen-year-old Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, giving his first performance in San Francisco. Because first impressions often tend to last the longest, Lisiecki seems to have made it a point to present a wide diversity of selections for the sake of making that first impression a good one.
He certainly got off to an excellent start. He made the bold decision to begin with the first four of the eight preludes that Olivier Messiaen composed in 1928. These were Messiaen’s earliest works for piano; and they have some strikingly Janus-faced qualities. Messiaen taught himself to play piano as a child and became acquainted with the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel at a very early age. (He was already familiar with these composers when he entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1919 at the age of eleven.) It is thus not hard to detect Debussy’s spirit in the 1928 preludes, if not in grammatical details then in the poetic choices of programmatic titles and an overall logic that explores the boundary between denotation and connotation. At the same time, the titles themselves presage Messiaen’s disposition towards mystical visions and the modest insignificance of man in the setting of both nature and the cosmos.
In introducing himself to his first San Francisco audience, Lisiecki approached these four pieces with disciplined attention to Messiaen’s details and a sensitive approach to touch, which revealed the influence of Debussy’s transparency on Messiaen’s rhetoric. Each prelude was given an absorbing account that seemed to promise an evening that would flourish with both expressive and cerebral qualities. Alas, that promise was not fulfilled.
The remainder of the program tended to focus, almost entirely, on technical display, often hammered out with an intensity that bordered on brutality. This was most evident in Lisiecki’s decision to complement beginning with Messiaen preludes by concluding with the Opus 10 études of Frédéric Chopin. He offered a verbal introduction to this set, observing that the challenge of each of these études may begin with mastering the necessary physical proficiency but that there is also the challenge of teasing musical expressiveness out of all of that proficiency.
Lisiecki’s approach to that expressiveness was, at best, uneven. Thus, he clearly understood that the bass line for the first étude in C major served as foundation, while the right hand was little more than an uninterrupted perpetuum mobile stream of embellishment. He also clearly appreciated Chopin’s effort to modulate that gushing stream with a dynamic contour, but that appreciation was marred by a tendency to perform every forte as if it were a fortissimo. That brutal approach tended to dominate the full Opus 10 cycle with little relief, continuing into the encore selection of the final étude from Opus 25.
Furthermore, the distortions of such an aggressive rhetoric turned out to be a continuation of Lisiecki’s approach to the remainder of the first half of his program. Each of the movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 825 partita in B-flat major was hammered out with an intensity that affirmed Lisiecki’s confidence in his precision but ended up masking Bach’s commitment to inventiveness at the heart of this “keyboard practice” composition. The two short pieces by Ignacy Jan Paderewski may have played up this composer’s capacity for virtuosity, but there was no playfulness in these short pieces that were likely composed to gently mock traditional forms while honoring them at the same time. A similar sense of wit could be found in the score for the three Czech dances that Bohuslav Martinů composed in 1926; but that wit was overwhelmed by Lisiecki’s incessant pounding, which obscured all traces of Martinů’s well-honed sense of rhetoric.
Perhaps Lisiecki should go back to fill out the full set of those Messiaen preludes and then think on how their approach to musicianship fits so well into so much of the rest of the repertoire.