Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 March 2018

Pianist Jan Lisiecki hits all the right notes at Abu Dhabi Festival

The new Festival Recital Series closed with a spellbinding performance by Jan Lisiecki, performing a day after his 20th birthday.

Canadian classical pianist Jan Lisiecki performed at the Emirates Palace as part of the Festival Recital Series. Ravindranath K / The National
Canadian classical pianist Jan Lisiecki performed at the Emirates Palace as part of the Festival Recital Series. Ravindranath K / The National

Since the release of his first CD at the age of 15, Jan Lisiecki has been one of the most in-demand teenage pianists in the world.

All that came to an end – in the nicest possible way – at the Abu Dhabi Festival, where the talented Canadian performed the first concert of his 20s, a day after marking his birthday with a surprise celebration and cake on board an Emirates flight to the UAE.

The new decade certainly hasn’t begun to show physically on Lisiecki, who looked fit and ready for the high-school prom, as he strode confidently onto the Emirates Palace stage, garbed in an evening suit and bright red bow tie.

He began the evening’s programme where it all began for him, with Bach. First came two short, contrasting choral preludes, arranged for piano by Italian virtuoso Ferruccio Busoni. Tantalising the audience with his elegiac execution, Lisiecki’s grasp of the great master truly became apparent on the lengthy Partita No 2 in C Minor, as he inventively mined his instrument’s dynamic potential to breathe fresh human profundity into Bach’s typically tight, mathematical melodies.

Next he turned to the overlooked composer Paderewski, a former prime minister of Poland, soaking in the lush, Romantic textures of three of his six Humoresques de Concert, before a reading of the composer’s stark and delicate Nocturne in B-flat Minor.

Lisiecki ended the first half of his performance with the rustic carnival of Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, a riotously schizophrenic showdown requiring cartoon-like levels of dexterity, which Lisiecki gamely provided, rocking his head from side to side as if in a trance, not looking at the keys, as if dazzled by his own finesse. All this was a warm-up for what was to come next. Stripping off his jacket for the second half, the birthday boy sat down to climb the mountain of Chopin’s revolutionary first 12 études. Boasting Polish ancestry – and having released two discs of Chopin, including all 24 primary études – this is what the audience came to see. There was a tangible air of expectancy as Lisiecki sat down to play.

Polishing off the dozen short pieces in a little under 30 minutes, the performance was both a brazen display of technique, and a roller-coaster ride through the depths of worldly emotion.

The famous third (Triste) and closing 12th (Revolutionary) were familiar crowd-pleasers, but it was the reflective fifth and 11th that best showcased Lisiecki’s gift for welling deep into the score’s emotional core.

The appreciative audience was repaid with a spine-tingling encore of Chopin’s haunting Nocturne in C Sharp Minor (Posthumous). A magnificent end to the new Festival Recital Series, and I hope the concept will remain a part of the festival next year.