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Classical review: Proms 10 and 11 - Jan Lisiecki makes his proms debut, and Ex Cathedra astonish with Stockhausen

Prom 10 – Lisiecki, Santa Cecilia, Pappano (****)Prom 11 – Ex Cathedra, Skidmore (*****)

The Polish-Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki has come a long way in his first eighteen years, but he's kept his eye firmly on the ball. As a child he refused to play mere technical exercises, insisting on ‘real’ music, and for him that meant Chopin.

Invited to play the F minor concerto at thirteen in Warsaw, he quickly became established as his native land’s prime youthful exponent of its prime musical export, and his debut disc for Deutsche Grammophon, released this year, was a recording of Chopin’s daunting Etudes characterised by a strikingly unshowy refinement. 

But tackling Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor for his Proms debut represented a very different proposition, because its warm-blooded virtuosity and heart-on-sleeve expressiveness requires an earthier kind of pianism. Judiciously supported by Antonio Pappano and his Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Lisiecki found a chastely singing tone for the opening theme and maintained it throughout all the thrills and spills of the first movement; his cadenza, though finely-worked, was a bit rushed.

The conversation between soloist and orchestra in the Intermezzo had a seductively dreamy quality, but somehow both parties failed to realise the full drama of the music, and in particular of the gear-change – which should be magical – between this movement and the finale. And there, despite a performance of wonderful precision, Lisiecki’s youthful inexperience revealed itself with passage-work which should have been glowingly exuberant reduced to the banality of an exercise. The music needed to breathe more. But his encore – the 1830 C sharp minor Nocturne – had a miraculous ease and grace.

I’m lost for words to explain why Ex Cathedra’s performances of two Stockhausen classics should have been so overwhelmingly effective, but that’s appropriate since very few words came comprehensibly across in either “Gesang der Junglinge” or “Mittwoch aus Licht”.

Listening to the first of these choral-electronic works with Kathinka Pasveer’s inventive sound-projection was like being painlessly dive-bombed from all angles by flocks of ecstatic birds. For the second work, this brilliant Birmingham choir led by their mentor Jeffrey Skidmore arranged themselves into a ‘parliament’ to debate the nature of love, in a quasi-oratorio using a Babel of unknown tongues.

Everyone sang the same pitch, but with different rhythms, resulting in a fascinating sound-world; gradually one realised that this supposedly incomprehensible debate had at least as much reality as the ‘real life’ debates in the Mother of Parliaments. Weird or what?