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Beethoven, Complete Piano Concertos, Lisiecki / Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Music Review: Beethoven, Complete Piano Concertos, Lisiecki / Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Deutsche Grammophon

The High Arts Review rating: ★ ★  ☆  ☆  ☆

The Beethoven Piano Concertos are real gems, each one a masterpiece, and there have been sets where the pianist manages to underline their uniqueness.

Jan Lisiecki is a very thoughtful pianist and he manages just that: he definitely doesn’t give us a run-of-the-mill account in the present release. There’s careful rubato, changes of tempo abound, and the playful last movements really dance. He is also the conductor, and he does a fine job here: I have to say I was impressed with the transparency of playing in the louder passages and even though this is a modern orchestra, some HIP (historically-informed) touches are present (thunderous timpani etc.).

The First Concerto receives a very noble treatment. Now, noble might not be a word one would associate with this fiery work. But listen to how Lisiecki enters after the orchestra, right at the beginning, how he sculpts the very first phrase softly. The curious thing about this reading is that, after the impressive no-holds-barred orchestral statement, one would expect the same level of energetic playing from the pianist. But, while every phrase is alive and present, I felt that certain passages could use more thrust. In the Largo sometimes his playing can be too mannered, as in 2:57, where the pianissimo is such that the pianist sounds as if he has just missed a note and these mannerisms do return, making passages, like the one from 5:07 to 5:10, sound disjointed. The finale fares best with some exciting orchestral playing from the brass, where Lisiecki’s playing sounds livelier overall.

The Second Concerto is, for me, the weakest link in the whole set. In the past we have seen other pianists take a liberal, slow approach, Aimard (in his set with Harnoncourt) being a case in point. My main concern here is some slow tempi which make certain passages sound static, followed by contrasting faster tempi only seconds later: unfortunately, such rapid tempo manipulations only make the work sound inconsistent. Listen to the first movement where, after the impressive orchestral interlude ending at 6:20, the piano enters way too hesitatingly, making an unnecessary contrast. This is one of Beethoven’s most youthful works and I doubt that such an over-interpretation is really needed. On a side note, let me also say that the specific recording of the Second Concerto also suffers from way too much coughing from the audience. But there are also some magical moments, like the fine orchestral detail, starting at 3:28, with some beautiful string pizzicati that are rarely captured and heard so lovely (3:57 onwards in particular). Again, I feel that the finale here works better, thanks to Lisiecki’s athletic playing.

With the Third Concerto, we enter Beethoven’s middle period and one can sense that from the powerful orchestral opening. Yes, the orchestra could make more of a statement in the opening Allegro con brio but that is not to say that it lacks power. In fact, I have hardly any complaints regarding the performances of the last three concertos. Everything sounds almost fine: especially the slow movement of the Third Concerto is as lyrical as one would expect. This could arguably be Lisiecki’s finest moment. Poetic, poised, free-flowing, unmannered, sensitive. I only have accolades. Same for the Rondo-Allegro finale, one of the most energetic moments in the set.

The Fourth Concerto has a carefree quality, Lisiecki producing some characterful trills, even though I still wish he were less idiosyncratic in the solo parts (there are quite a few in the first movement) and I’d have wished for a more dramatic contrast between soloist and orchestra in the Andante con moto.

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As for the Emperor concerto, it receives an excellent performance: again, I would have preferred a more imposing orchestral contribution, but alas, this is a complaint I often have with recordings of the Fifth (Bernstein got it so right in his recording with Serkin!)

Overall, despite the many artistic choices Lisiecki takes, I often felt disappointed, especially with the first two concertos. Let me just say that while I like performers taking chances, there were times that  I found the changes of tempo distracting, as in the Second Concerto which needed more energy and less thinking.

But playing aside, I have to emphasize that Lisiecki does offer some magical insights and my only real complaint has to do with the recorded sound. While both orchestra and soloist have been captured in perfect balance, these are live performances and both stage noise and audience noise are very distracting. In this day and age, we hear live recordings where every single extraneous noise has been omitted. Here coughing has been retained and there is a lot of it. For me, it ruins, for example, the beginning of the Largo movement of the Third Concerto.

So, to sum up: Lisiecki’s approach in all five concertos (especially in the First and Second) is idiosyncratic with many personal touches and a plethora of tempo changes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but these happen so often that I found the playing distracting me from the overall enjoyment. Still, there are some very fine moments. But even if the playing offered me 100% satisfaction, I would find the coughing and stage noise way too disturbing for me to propose this set.

Lisiecki is a very sensitive pianist with some really interesting ideas. If he re-visits and re-records these concertos again in the future, this time under ideal conditions (in a studio, with a conductor), I am sure the result could be more satisfying overall.

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