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New Classical Tracks: Lisiecki and friends collect works by Schumann

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New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated Feature airing Nationally on Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to Julie Amacher's Feature with Jan Liseicki.   

 READ THE TRANSCRIPT -      When you thumb through the liner notes of Jan Liseicki's new Schumann recording, one of the first things you'll notice is a casual photo of this 21-year-old Polish-born, Canadian pianist towering over conductor Antonio Pappano. "It is an adorable photo," Jan admits, "and I like that we're both somewhat sweaty and really in the moment. This was after a concert we had played in Brussels. This is the happiness and also the relief in a way is all captured in that one moment in that picture."

And that, in a nutshell, describes how this new recording of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, and three of his rarely heard piano gems, came to be. It's not just about Schumann's music, it's more about the collaborative spirit Jan experienced with Maestro Pappano and the Orchestra of St. Cecilia.

"Perhaps it's a bit unusual to start thinking of a recording in that way, but we had played the Schumann concerto together at quite a few occasions in different environments, and I felt a particular connection with Maestro Pappano and also in particular with his orchestra for this music," Jan explains. "I felt as though they understood it. And somehow it was also very fitting for the Italian way of playing things and seeing things, and that's when the Schumann CD came into being.

"Now, the next question would be why I recorded Schumann with Schumann and not Schumann with, for example, Grieg," Jan continues. "And that, actually, was something that had been already in my mind before. Firstly, I like recording CDs that are complete, CDs that somehow I would buy. And of course, the Schumann small pieces for piano and orchestra I think are incredible works and are very rarely performed and even more rarely recorded; in fact, for one of them, it was the first time ever it had been recorded on Deutsche Grammophon, and so that's how the CD came into being."

Schumann's Opus 134, the Introduction and Concert Allegro is the work being recorded here for the first time. Jan says it's a technically challenging work that keeps evolving and changing so the overall concept is a little hard to grasp. "And perhaps we can once again go back into history and see that Schumann was insane, actually," Jan says. "Around this time, he tried to take his own life and eventually committed himself to a mental institution, which was very challenging for him, too, personally. And this whole time I think he was in turmoil, internally particularly. Of course, he still had his loving wife Clara, but somehow, inside, he wasn't at peace."

It was Clara Schumann who often encouraged her husband to persevere. Jan says it's true of the Piano Concerto in A major as well. "Had it not been for Clara, his wife, I don't think he would have finished the concerto," Jan explains. "It was already accepted for publishing, the first movement - it was all done. And a few years later, finally Clara managed to convince him to finish it or to add the second and the third movement. And the fascinating thing is - you cannot feel it is different Schumann. It's not different thematic material, it fits, it is one concerto. Though, one thing you DO notice - at the end of the first movement, I think it should be allowed that audiences can applaud because it was written to be an ending and you feel that - you feel this culmination, the climax of an entire movement, and without applause, it's a little bit deflating."

So did Jan have applause after the first movement in any of his performances? "It's always refreshing when it happens, and most refreshing in the places where you know the audiences are aware that they shouldn't applaud after the first movement," he says. "When I'm performing, for example, in some major German cities where audiences have heard the Schumann concerto many times before and they know what comes next and they know it's not the end and they applaud, that's a true compliment."

Jan brought up Clara Schumann; she's the one who premiered Schumann's works in many cases. She was known for having a beautiful, singing sound in her playing; I asked Jan how he was able to accomplish that.

"Well, it's difficult to describe how exactly to accomplish that," he says. "But I think in the case of somebody who already knows how to play the piano, if you think it, you can do it. And some things are perhaps slightly more challenging than others. And sound is probably the hardest because we deal with an instrument that's different every day, that's temperamental, that we can't completely control. When we hit a note, that's it. We're done. We can't change what we did with that note. So sound is perhaps the most challenging aspect. But to me the most important and I put a lot of energy when I'm performing into making a most beautiful sound. My favorite compliments are from piano tuners who come up after rehearsal and say, 'I've never heard this piano sound this good.' Well, thank you very much!"

On this recording, Jan Lisiecki bids adieu with a piece he often uses as a encore. It comes from Schumann's Scenes of Childhood. "I like making records the same way that I perform," Jan says. "I wish as much as possible to retain the emotions of being in a concert hall. I don't want a CD to become sterile. And as an extension of this thought, I also wanted to add a thank you, and goodnight, and goodbye, and hope you enjoyed it - a thought, a moment of reflection. And I think this small work, which is called 'Dreaming,' has a lot of space for the mind to rest after this very turbulent and dramatic adventure that was the record that came before."

It's a small token of appreciation, presented in one beautiful recording featuring a thoughtful young pianist.