James Lisney Chopin Recital

Fantasy in F minor, Op.49
Impromptu in G flat, Op.51
Sonata in B flat minor, Op.35
Polonaise-fantaisie, Op.61
Sonata in B minor, Op.58

James Lisney (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 July, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The current Wigmore Hall season closed with this Chopin recital from James Lisney, celebrating 20 years since he first appeared there, the pianist here playing in support of the Himalayan Youth Foundation. This latter was introduced in a separate pre-concert event by Micheline Kramer (President) and David Bidwell (Vice President); there was also literature available. “Education is the solution”, said Kramer, and she went on to advise that “all donations go 100 percent to the children.”

If Lisney’s selection focussed on the two best-known of Chopin’s three piano sonatas, the inclusion of the Fantasy at the recital’s beginning established immediately Chopin at his very greatest (probably lost on some of the audience whose noise-making and inattention – throughout the evening – was rather irksome). As would be demonstrated across his performances, James Lisney seems to side with the perception of Chopin that he was a classical composer, one who revered Bach and Mozart and, therefore, that structure and notation were paramount to him. From Lisney, Chopin was less the Romantic aflame with passion pouring his heart into his music, but a more objective and precise creator. This is not to suggest that Lisney’s renditions were objective and literal for there was much that was tender, dynamically varied and flexible; furthermore, the Steinway that Lisney brought in (I’m assuming it’s the same, stellar instrument that features on his new recordings of Schubert on Woodhouse Edition) was especially beguiling to listen to, a soundworld that Lisney exploited persuasively in both touch and balance.

Lisney brought to Chopin a sonorous and lucid timbre and a powerful and poised demeanour, the Fantasy being quite volatile (convincingly) and the reflective section two-thirds through enjoyed rapt attention. The Impromptu that followed was a delight; insouciant and with inner feeling.

The ‘funeral march’ sonata began less than arrestingly and it wasn’t until the repeat of the exposition (for Lisney this includes repetition of the ‘introduction’ as well) that the dramatic nature of this music ‘took wing’. Lisney’s tempo-related integration of sections was admirable, and the scherzo, for once, wasn’t bounced all round the wall in a display of virtuosity – rather it had shape as well as purpose – and if the ‘funeral march’ itself was rather played down, the middle section (as the scherzo’s ‘trio’ had been) was wonderfully ‘distant’ in its etherealness. The elusive, fascinatingly enigmatic finale – all over in an instant – was remarkably articulate at the fleetest of tempos.

The Polonaise-fantaisie rather fell between stools, not aristocratic enough and perhaps pushed along too much (as the Largo of the following B minor sonata was), with divergences between the dance and fantasy elements that didn’t quite add up. The Third Sonata enjoyed Lisney’s fastidious approach in terms of proportion (first movement repeat again observed) and emotional modulation, albeit with the proviso that a more expansive approach would have liberated more the sonata’s potential for expectation; this was rather ‘cut and dried’. There was no doubting, though, the power of the ‘order of things’ and that the finale was an impressive culmination.

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