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Listening to the Piece That Made Chopin’s Career


Jan Lisiecki

Holger Hage

“Hats off, gentleman — a genius!”

This enthusiastic phrase comes from an influential and oft-quoted article by Robert Schumann, from his early days as a music critic. Schumann was extolling Frédéric Chopin’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” for Piano and Orchestra, based on the coy theme of a famous duet from “Don Giovanni.”

Schumann was catching up late with that Chopin piece when he wrote this review in 1831. The work had been composed in 1827, when Chopin was a 17-year-old student of Joseph Elsner in Warsaw. The piece may have been essentially an assignment from Elsner: Every artist of Chopin’s time who wanted to make a name as a composer-pianist had to write works for piano and orchestra. This was Chopin’s first.

Two years later, he played the variations on his debut program in Vienna, with stupendous success. In a letter to his family back in Warsaw, he wrote that the audience actually interrupted the performance with applause after each variation: applause “so loud that I couldn’t hear the orchestra’s tutti.” This piece brought him immediate attention at a crucial point in his career.

But if you’ve never heard it, or even heard of it, you are not alone. The piece rarely turns up in concert these days. There have been some fine recordings. And one of the best is the latest: a Deutsche Grammophon release featuring the superb 22-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, a Canadian of Polish descent.

Chopin’s two piano concertos have long been repertory staples, and Mr. Lisiecki has recorded them both magnificently. This new album, which has Krzysztof Urbanski conducting the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra (the ensemble that has just named Alan Gilbert its next chief conductor), offers Chopin’s mostly overlooked other works for piano and orchestra. The Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante turns up in performance now and then. But the “Rondo à la Krakowiak,” the Fantasy on Polish Airs and the “Là ci darem” Variations are all rarities.

Mr. Lisiecki’s exquisite account of the variations may bring overdue attention to a piece that was pivotal in Chopin’s emergence as a compositional star. Though he was not naturally drawn to writing for orchestra, the work’s scoring, if somewhat awkward, has nice color and variety. The piano writing, nodding to the taste at the time for florid, virtuosic passagework, brims with brilliance and rippling runs, as well as captivating elegance and intricacy.

This nearly 18-minute piece opens with a guardedly ominous introduction. When the piano enters, its quizzical music seems to be pondering the Mozart theme: You hear just hints of it. After some five minutes, the variations begin with a stately run-through of the theme, though with tiny, impish tweaks. An orchestral ritornello serves as a bridge between each variation. One is like an étude, with dazzling runs in double thirds for the pianist’s right hand; in another, the left hand holds things steady with a chordal pattern while the right hand unfolds in carefree filigree. A minor-mode variation reveals Chopin’s passion for bel canto melody. The piece ends by turning Mozart’s tune into a feisty polonaise.

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