Philharmonia Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbański – Vltava & New World Symphony – Jan Lisiecki plays Chopin

Má vlast – Vltava
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Jan Lisiecki (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Krzysztof Urbański

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 October, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Krzysztof Urbański. Photograph: www.krzysztofurbanski.comWater and moonlight were linking themes during this concert’s first half, from the delicately intertwining flutes at the source of ‘Vltava’, the eddying violas as the river gathers pace to the moonlit scene with Nymphs and the thunder of the Rapids of St John, whilst Chopin’s ‘Romanze’ slow movement, at once gentle and melancholy, is a starry nocturne in all but name.

On the evidence of this concert it appears that the Philharmonia Orchestra may have struck gold with Krzysztof Urbański. He is currently Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony and has made appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony. There was unusual delicacy in the flutes at the outset of ‘Vltava’ and it was noticeable how carefully the violas picked up the same motion and also matched tone colour to the preceding woodwinds. There was patience too in the way that Urbański allowed the string lines to flower and how he built towards the high point; seldom does one hear as much care devoted to cellos and double basses here, a feature equally marked in the ‘New World’ Symphony. If there was an ‘old world’ mellowness to much of the Smetana, the fierce crispness with which the final two chords were despatched showed the mark of a real conductor.

Jan Lisiecki. Photograph: Mathias Bothor/DGChopin’s E minor Piano Concerto evoked memories of another Polish conductor, Paul Kletzki, who famously recorded the work with the Philharmonia Orchestra and a very young Maurizio Pollini. The soloist on this occasion was an equally youthful Jan Lisiecki. This work can outstay its welcome, seeming unduly discursive, but not here. Lisiecki didn’t make things easy for himself though – or for the orchestra – using a wide range of tempos which must have made life difficult for his accompanists, who nonetheless stuck to him like glue. Nor is his tone particularly ingratiating, but he has that essential charisma that has us hanging on his every note. This was no carbon-copy run-through, the fluctuations more the consequence of the infatuation of first love, with the slow movement’s reverie motionless, time somehow suspended. The Krakowiak finale had an exuberant earthiness. There was an encore, more Chopin, the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude from Opus 28, its tolling pinnacle carefully calibrated.

The ‘New World’ Symphony was a joy from start to finish. Urbański took the first-movement exposition repeat, a plus, teased out much expression that lies between the lines, took the Largo at a flowing pace (the composer originally marked it Andante and was only persuaded to change it by the conductor Anton Seidl), gave us an understated scherzo with a deliciously lolloping trio and followed it with a rambunctious account of the finale. Interestingly here, instead of accelerating at the close of the coda, he ‘regained’ the original tempo exactly as marked and held it precisely, with the longest of pauses (also as indicated) at the close as the music fades into silence. Many fine individual contributions enhanced the performance.

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