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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Works for Piano and Orchestra
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54 [29:43]
Introduction and Allegro appassionato Op.92 [14:31]
Introduction and Concert-Allegro Op.134 [12:31]
Träumerei Op.15 No.7 [2:18]
Jan Lisiecki (piano)
Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano
rec. September 2015, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 5327 [59:05]

Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki made his Proms debut in 2013 in Schumann’s Piano Concerto, partnered by the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Sir Antonio Pappano. Now, Lisiecki resumes this partnership for his third Deutsche Grammophon disc, supplementing the Concerto with Schumann’s other works for piano and orchestra, including the seldom heard Introduction and Concerto-Allegro Op.134 which is recorded here for the first time under the DG label.

With its moody unpredictability, the Concerto always feels to me like a young person’s work, and the 21-year-old Lisiecki captures all of its impetuosity, self-indulgence and dreaminess. With a sure sense of theatre, Pappano seeks out the drama: the opening chord is an explosive crack, like a starting-pistol, triggering a rapid assertive torrent from Lisiecki, whose impulsiveness is immediately subdued by the woodwind’s wistful reflections. The oboe solo is finely phrased and the engineers have ensured that is cleanly heard.

At times in this opening movement I found myself longing for more breadth and airiness from Lisiecki, who pushes boldly through the animated passages. Angela Hewitt takes 15 minutes, 45 seconds longer than Lisiecki, in her 2012 recording with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Hannu Lintu, while one of my favourite recordings of the Concerto – Murray Perahia’s 2010 Sony Classics disc with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Colin Davis – is timed at 14:45.

There is an understated poetry in the piano’s quiet lyrical episodes, and I was especially touched by Lisiecki’s singing tone during the exchanges with the soothing clarinet melody, and by the gentleness of the recapitulation. Lisiecki is not afraid to elongate or delay, nor to emphasise inner voices or give prominence to small gestures. The result is not mannered; rather, the melodies unfold soulfully, complemented by some lovely interchanges with the orchestra whose string players produce a soft, tender sound. With startling clarity, arpeggios tumble beneath beautifully etched right-hand melodies, an impressive combination of nuance and precision. Such virtuosity is not distracting: the cascades fall like droplets of pure colour – with particularly penetrating distillation in the lower register.

Pappano is alert to every subtle rubato and relishes the music’s constant shifts of gear. He responds to the urgency in the piano’s marcato quavers – a rare instance when I found Lisiecki’s tone a little brittle – and launches ebulliently into the tutti episodes in which the infectious joy is enhanced by some punchy timpani playing. The accelerando leading to the cadenza turns up the temperature still further, and Lisiecki gives us a mercurial fantasy which races swiftly (a little too hastily, perhaps?) from recitative-like ruminations, through ever more animated imitation, to exhilarating sweeping chords. The bass is always prominent, and rich-toned, and a tight double trill leads into a coda that pulses with tense excitement.

The Intermezzo is notable for its unaffected grace and the spaciousness of the diffident dialogue between piano and orchestra. Again, Lisiecki observes every detail of articulation that the score instructs, not pedantically but to bring freshness and character to motifs which might at first glance appear innocuous. The Santa Cecilia strings soar ardently in the passionate central episode, the cello theme rising with a yearning breadth which is subsequently equalled by clarinet, bassoon and horn. There is an effortless back and forth between the lyrical climaxes and the modest opening theme. As the movement draws to a close, the creeping lethargy of the falling phrases of the clarinet and bassoon, which drag the music to minor tonalities, is wonderfully eased aside – like a shadow erased by an emerging sun – but the sudden twist into the Allegro vivace doesn’t quite produce the sort of ‘spring’ that makes one start.

Lisiecki’s waltz is carefree and light, though. The pianist plays with lithe athleticism, and in the opening theme there is a wonderful evenness in both the left hand crotchets and the quavers in the right which conveys a spirit of blithe relaxation. Even the most robust passagework is buoyant, never heavy or swaggering. Pappano takes care to ensure that the imitative interchanges within the orchestral texture are clearly voiced, and the complex syncopations and displaced accents are rock steady. In the liner-notes, Lisiecki remarks, ‘Of course the Piano Concerto is virtuosic. But it’s virtuosic in a way that’s in the background, and that’s what speaks to me’. There is indeed a sense of genuine conversation between soloist and orchestra, the latter allowing the pianist his brief moments of romantic reverie or stormy upsurges, but all joining in sunny celebration at the close.

The subsequent two concert pieces are noteworthy for the way in which Lisiecki uses the intricate details to convey a strength of feeling which outweighs the technical bravura. In Pappano’s hands, the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato Op.92 is very much an operatic drama, tension escalating as the music swings from conflict to tentative resolution and back again. The tender ripples of the Introduction, in which the piano is partnered by a silky, low clarinet theme, are magical, but there is a gradual enriching of the Santa Cecilia palette as the orchestra tries to draw the solo piano from its introspections, and towards the climax one notices the strength and weight of Lisiecki’s left hand as he uses the bass line to impel the music forward.

A last, momentary day-dream is blasted aside by the Allegro, as the tightly strung ensemble triplets serve as a springboard for an almost savage accent in the initiating motif. The strong tutti passages repeatedly throw a challenge to the piano, but again the soloist refuses to be drawn into a combative stand-off, repeatedly retreating into self-absorbed flights of fancy, despite the goading of the bassoon and horn. Pappano coaxes chamber-like intimacy from his players during the complex exchanges of the thematically dense and harmonically stormy central section, but after such unrest piano and orchestra come together for a satisfyingly unified close.

Lisiecki describes the Introduction and Concert-Allegro Op.134 as ‘absolutely crazy’. It does seem as if the mercurial restlessness of the first movement of the Concerto is pushed to extremes in this work, which was the composer’s birthday gift for his wife, Clara. While music cannot serve as a psychological thermometer, it does not seem surprising that shortly afterwards Schumann began to show signs of the mental instability which would lead to a suicide attempt, admission into a mental institution and premature death in 1856.

The ghostly opening pizzicato passage initiates rhapsodic piano explorations and the strings grow in strength, building to an arco outburst which is almost threatening in its intensity. But there is tenderness too, in soothing melodies from the flute and clarinet, and in the dreamy retreat from the world’s more pressing demands that the cadenza affords the pianist, and Lisiecki seems intent on avoiding excess and emphasising the work’s quieter reflections. That said, the more extrovert tumbling cascades are delivered with fantastic metronomic precision. As the music roves restlessly, there seems to be almost too much feeling, and too many conflicting emotions, to be contained within musical form, but Pappano keeps a tight rein to hold back the incipient dissolution which lingers just beneath the surface. At the close, however, there is warmth and comfort in a blaze of D major.

Lisiecki offers Träumerei as a palate-cleansing ‘encore’, indulging in some idiosyncratic phrasing but conjuring a convincingly dreamy languor. Characteristic of the whole disc, this miniature blends youthful freedom with mature thought.

Claire Seymour



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