Jan Lisiecki’s Variable Chopin Nocturnes

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

Jan Lisiecki unquestionably knows how he wants to approach each of Chopin’s Nocturnes, and has the wherewithal to realize his conceptions. Some interpretations succeed more than others.

The B-flat minor Op. 9 No. 1 assiduously lures you in, as the pianist tentatively eases into the music, and slowly gathers strength and dynamism as the music unfolds. His meticulous distinctions between legato and detached phrases reinforce the B major Op. 9 No. 3’s agitato qualities. I do question Lisiecki’s lurchingly mannered accelerandos in the main theme of the F-sharp major Op. 15 No. 2, although carefully plotted dynamic gradations justify the pianist’s broad pacing in the G minor Op. 15 No. 3.

Lisiecki also takes his time over the C-sharp minor Op. 27 No. 1’s introspective opening section, where his sotto voce articulation of the melody and minuscule pedal blurrings create an appropriately disembodied effect. Yet his similar approach to that Nocturne’s D-flat major opus mate causes the music to wander, in contrast to faster and shapelier performances from Pires, Pollini, Barenboim, Vasary, and Askenase–just to mention other Deutsche Grammophon versions.

The A-flat Op. 32 No. 2 isn’t so much stretched out than “spaced out”, but the G major Op. 37 No. 2’s double notes convey lilting charm, albeit to squarer effect than in Pollini’s comparable yet more flexible traversal. Some listeners will find Lisiecki’s slow-motion C minor Op. 48 No. 1 hypnotic, yet his shift in tone and mood when the central octave climax kicks in seems too abrupt and superimposed rather than emerging from what came before. I also don’t buy Lisiecki’s studied introspection in the B major Op. 62 No. 1, and am less easily seduced than others by the hushed aura that the pianist evokes in the final pages.

The E-flat Nocturne Op. 55 No. 2’s extraordinary contrapuntal interplay never takes wing due to Lisiecki’s meticulous yet frankly prosaic conception. By contrast, his contrived rubato undermines the dramatic flow of the F minor Op. 55 No. 1’s central episode, unlike the narrative simplicity he brings to the main theme. My advice is to sample Lisiecki’s Nocturnes and download the strongest tracks. For overall consistency, however, my top Nocturne cycle choices remain the broodingly poetic Moravec (Supraphon), the epically serious Arrau (Decca), the warmly spontaneous Pires (DG), and, for historic piano buffs, Jan Smeterlin’s genius melodic projection (Eloquence).

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Moravec (Supraphon); Pires (DG)

  • Jan Lisiecki (piano)

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