Pianist Jan Lisiecki finds his purpose in Chopin

For nearly his entire life, Jan Lisiecki has regarded the poetic and passionate music of Frédéric Chopin as a pillar of his repertoire.

At 13, he was invited to the 2008 edition of the Chopin and His Europe Festival in Warsaw to perform the Polish composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The budding artist created such a sensation that he was asked back the following year to take on the Piano Concerto No. 1, and his international professional career was launched.

His latest venture into the works of Chopin is a recording of the composer’s 21 Nocturnes, released last year on the Deutsche Grammophon label. To support that album, he will perform some of those Nocturnes, interspersed with a selection of Chopin’s Etudes during a recital Jan. 30 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series.

“When I sit down at the piano, and I read a score of Chopin’s music, I somehow have an idea of what I’d like do with it from the very beginning,” Lisiecki said. “It’s just feels natural to me. There isn’t that period where you are getting to know the notes, and you are swimming in deep water, and you don’t know what even the phrases are. You have that feeling with other composers, and I don’t feel that with Chopin.”

Lisiecki, 26, who continues to reside in his native Calgary, Alberta, has quickly become a major figure on the keyboard scene. The pianist was performing more than 100 concerts a year before the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed his appearances, and he is set to return to close to that level in 2022. “What will actually end up occurring is a completely different matter,” he said, referring to the ongoing and unpredictable challenges of the virus.

He has 35 recitals scheduled in 2021-22 that feature the same program as the one he will be performing in Chicago, an impressively high number at a time when some performing arts presenters have pared back such offerings. “Recitals are very particular things,” Lisiecki said. “For audience members, it’s very intimate, of course, it’s very direct, and it’s also quite challenging. And it depends on what is being presented.”

While the quality of the playing is obviously important, Lisiecki believes that the first step toward achieving success with a recital is the program, and it is essential to assemble a lineup that offers something different. He has nothing against traditional programs, in which a player might have a big piece like a Beethoven or Liszt sonata paired with another major work and some small selections.

“But without really a common thread or concept for the recital, it’s just basically that you want to play some amazing music,” he said. “But that becomes very challenging, because as much as everyone loves a Beethoven sonata, in terms of interesting an audience to come see it, it’s less engaging. It’s just: ‘Oh, another piano recital.’ ”

That’s why Lisiecki likes recital programs with a theme or concept. In this case, he is focusing on just Chopin. His original intent was to showcase the Nocturnes (written from 1827 through 1846) that he had recently recorded, but he asked himself: How to make them the focal point without possibly putting the audience to sleep?

So he came up with the idea of pairing them with some of Chopin’s famed Etudes, which he recorded for a 2013 album. Unlike the Nocturnes, which share a similar color palette, the Etudes have a more distinctive individual character and no shortage of technical challenges. His original thought was to group the Nocturnes on the first half and the Etudes on the next. But as he prepared the program, he changed his mind, alternating the two forms on each half.

“Having played this program a few times already, it does really engage the audience,” he said. “And the contrasts are such that you have these moments of serene beauty and stunning Chopin melodies but, at the same time, you have the edge-of-your-seat Etudes in between that don’t feel like a complete interruption but feel like a continuation.”

To aid the sense of continuity, Lisiecki has carefully grouped works together by keys, like the Etude in E-flat Minor Op. 10, No. 6, with the Nocturne in E-flat Major Op. 9, No. 2.

Of Polish descent, he believes his interpretations of Chopin’s works are strengthened because he speaks Polish and he has visited Poland and understands something of its culture and mentality.

“But at the same time, my experience with Chopin has been completely separate from that,” he said. “I never studied in Poland. I never had a Polish teacher. I never thought of myself as playing Chopin in a particularly Polish way. I simply love his music, and I love his music mainly as an artist and a pianist, because the way he wrote for my instrument is unique and aligns very much with the way I hear and feel the piano.”

Lisiecki pointed to several qualities that he particularly admires in the composer’s works, including his long phrases, melodic impulses, all-supporting harmonies and the way the left hand is “omnipresent” but not necessarily in the foreground.

The pianist signed with Deutsche Grammophon when he was just 15. His Nocturnes album is his third Chopin recording for the well-known label, including one featuring all the composer’s works for piano and orchestra that are not concertos. In addition, a recording was released on another label of his live teenage performances at the Chopin and His Europe Festival.

The public affection for Chopin’s music has never diminished since his death in Paris in 1849 at age 39. “And that’s an incredible advantage of playing Chopin — without a doubt,” Lisiecki said. “For audience members, it really tugs on their heartstrings and engages them in a different way.”

The pianist last appeared in Chicago in December 2019, when he made his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut with guest conductor Manfred Honeck, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.

“At 24, Lisiecki has a long and promising future ahead of him, yet one was repeatedly struck by the maturity and insight of this Orchestra Hall performance,” wrote music critic Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune. “Here was a pianist uninterested in speed for its own sake or technical bravura detached from musical intent. To the contrary, virtually everything Lisiecki played conveyed depth of thought and openness of expression.”