James Lisney at Weill Recital Hall [The Last Sonatas]

Piano Sonata in E flat, HobXVI/52
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

James Lisney (piano)

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 11 November, 2009
Venue: Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York

James LisneyJames Lisney made his New York debut with a daring and formidable program of three “last sonatas”, those by Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, the first concert in a mini-residency at Weill Recital Hall.

Lisney was paired with a Steinway instrument that was hardly on its best behavior. A few out-of-tune notes in the middle register were already evident in the Haydn, and, as if that weren’t bad enough, the instrument conveyed a dull, muddy sound, and its high register seemed to be on hiatus. It’s a tribute to Lisney’s solid technique and control that he overcame the instrument’s inadequacies, delivering consistent clarity and polished phrasing.

Haydn’s final numbered sonata was one of three he composed in 1794 and 1795, well over a decade before his death. The work is contemporary with the later ‘London’ Symphonies. Lisney showed off an impressive knack for combining nuanced articulation and dynamics to elicit an almost symphonic sound in the first two movements, and succeeded in bringing improvisatory and startling freshness to each of Haydn’s signature fortissimo outbursts in the finale.

Beethoven wrote his final piano sonata in a period when he was not only upending traditional form in large-scale works but pushing musicians and instruments to the limits of their capability. Lisney’s extrovert phrasing highlighted the music’s chromatic intensity, particularly in the first movement – yet managed to tie the rambling formal structure together with more sanguine satisfaction than many keyboard ‘superstars’. The imposing second movement is a Theme and Variations that often leaves the impression that the player is trying to herd cats; Lisney managed to unify the often unruly movement, keeping the beast on a tight leash while running it through rigorous poetic and rhythmic paces.

Maybe it’s my own bad luck, but every live performance I had heard of the opening movement of Schubert’s B flat Piano Sonata, including a few by major luminaries of the instrument, found me scrambling for the No-Doz tablets well before the development section – that is, up until now. Lisney pays heed to the first movement’s tempo marking (Molto moderato, as opposed to the soporific ‘Andante de facto’ too many players attempt), and the welcome, Lied-like declamation he brought to the work’s main theme and rich palette of sonorities, particularly those he employed for the chameleonic accompanying figures, illuminated every corner of Schubert’s grandest movement for piano. The less-ponderous tempo also struck a satisfying balance with the succeeding movements rather than overshadowing them as too often happens. The second was taken at an Andante that brought both momentum and understated drama to the music, the melodies unfolding in long, eloquent phrases. The scherzo was played con delicatezza – but also with moments of spirited piquancy, and the finale carried plenty of merriment – and more than a few hints of things to come in Schumann and Brahms.

Lisney played a rare and beautiful encore: Mozart’s Adagio in C (K356), originally composed for glass harmonica. This recital was not as well attended as it deserved to be, but Lisney’s excellent program was rewarded with a warm ovation – particularly after his daring Schubert and the Mozart encore. This was an impressive debut, and bodes well for his residency at Weill Recital Hall.

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