At what point does a critic move from gentle encouragement to serious criticism?
That is the dilemma with 17-year-old Cargary-born pianist Jan Lisiecki, who gave the first of three consecutive recitals for Stratford Summer Music on Thursday morning.
He may only be 17, but he already has the bulging concert calendar of a classical star. He also arrives boasting a critically well-received recording of Mozart piano concertos.
When Lisiecki first played at Stratford Summer Music three years ago, he arrived as a prodigiously talented, precociously serious teen. Now, he appears on marquees here, in Europe and in Asia as a main attraction.
His programmes — mainly Mozart and Bach on Thursday, Chopin on Friday and Beethoven (with collaborators, the Annex String Quartet) on Saturday — at St Andrew’s Church in Stratford, focus on the core of the classical repertoire, which has been recorded and performed by just about every pianist of note.
Measured against the weight of history rather than the promise of youth, Lisiecki comes out nicely. But, in this concert, he also showed that there is still plenty of room for artistic growth here.
The Calgarian’s technical skills are beyond reproach. His playing comes with an easy, light fluidity free of pretense or affectation. But there was also a marked lack of depth in some of his Thursday interpretations, demonstrated in a profusion of small, unfinished details.
This summer, Stratford Summer Music commomorates the town’s relationship with Glenn Gould back in the 1950s and early-1960s as its way of marking what would have been the iconic pianist’s 80th birthday in September.
In that spirit, Lisiecki began his recital with the Partita No. 1, BWV 825, by J.S. Bach. It was a straightfoward, nicely balanced performance played in a way that was neither over-articulated nor softened by any impulse to too deeply plumb the broader dynamics or tonalities of a modern piano.
This was followed by Three Czech Dances, written in 1926 by Bohuslav Martinú (1890-1959). These inventive, highly virtuosic études gave Lisiecki free reign to dazzle the audience with his assured technique and obvious zest for the music.
The other newer music on the programme came from the technically brilliant Three Pieces for Piano, written by Kingston-based Marjan Mozetitch for the late Antonin Kubalik in the mid-1980s. Again, Lisiecki appeared to barely break a sweat in this music, which sounds like something a descendant of Maurice Ravel might have written.
Mozart’s popular A Major Piano Sonata, K. 331 (the one with the “Rondo alla turca” third movement) was a bit less successful. Lisiecki naturally possesses the light touch and clarity that this music demands, but all of it begged for more nuance and, especially, more space between some of the notes.
Even less satisfying were two of Ferrucio Busoni’s 10 pianistic re-imaginings of Bach chorale preludes, from 1898: “Ich ‘ruf zu dir, Herr,” and “Wachet auf.”
Lisiecki played both with an almost mechanical determination, as if he needed to get to the end with as little fuss as possible. This is the antithesis of what these richly harmonized Romantic arrangements are all about. This is music to be milked and savoured; if you want the pure, unadulterated real thing, you play Bach’s originals.
The original chorale melodies still need to sing amidst all of Busoni’s extra notes, which is something they didn’t always do in Lisiecki’s performance.
The humdrum result was at odds with the promise of the wonderful talents this 17-year-old clearly possesses.
Here is someone who is at the peak of goodwill from audiences, colleagues and critics alike. Everyone wants a smart, nice, unaffected young talent to succeed. But it’s a tough, competitive artistic world out there, with fresh enchantments lurking behind the big, shiny, black lids of grand pianos around the world.
Based on Thursday’s recital, Lisiecki still has some work to do.
For more information on Jan Lisiecki’s Friday and Saturday concerts, click here.