Jan Lisiecki in Verbier talks eggs, performance practice and the BBC Proms

Like my other interviews over the past few days, I started Jan Lisiecki’s with the customary ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ question. This unexpectedly caused a titter of recognition. It appears everyone the world over is familiar with the technique. How very disappointing. The question did elicit some useful advice however, like how to ask for a fried egg sunny side up in French. (What I didn’t reveal was that I actually hate fried eggs and will only eat the white.)

Lisiecki is incredibly outgoing. There is a refreshing willingness to engage (compared to some older performers), a reassuring grasp of self-deprecation (‘As a Canadian, I operate best at 10 degrees centigrade – anything higher than that and I have a bit of trouble’), an infectious enthusiasm. After a string of interviews where I’m in the company of similarly energising individuals, I’m beginning to wonder whether its the openness that I feel invigorated by the most, something I don’t experience quite so much as a journalist back in London.

Jan and I talked about the experience of coming to Verbier (including an inauspicious first visit involving an over-ripe cheese left in his hotel room), performance practice, how to recognise how an audience is engaged and his recital the night before in the church in Verbier.

That, like all of the concerts I’ve been to in Verbier over the past few days, was an incredible experience. A capacity audience watched a demanding programme that consisted Bach’s Partita No.2, Mozart’s A Major Sonata, Two Nocturnes by Chopin, a Rachmaninoff Elegy and Prelude, concluding with two of Schubert’s F minor impromptus, op.142. Lisiecki struck a lonely a figure on the platform, bathed in hot yellow light. No surprise that such a demanding programme saw a great deal of sweating, but at no point any break in concentration. That seemed both incredible and, at the same time, something which added to the tension in the room, giving proceedings an extra edge. Jan finished the programme with encores of more Bach and Arietta, the first of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces from Book I Op.12. Cue tears welling up at the corner of my eyes remembering lessons with my first piano teacher over thirty years ago.

On reflection, talking to a performer about the amount he or she sweated during a concert isn’t the most beguiling of techniques. Still, it underlined a point many of us as audience members overlook. “Why – when there was a break in the Mozart, didn’t you reach for you hankerchief and wipe the sweat away?” “It would have broken the spell of the moment.” Jan replied, “You have to keep the audience with you. If you break the atmosphere you have to work hard to re-establish it.” It seemed such an obvious point once he’d explained it. But it threw light on an aspect of performance I do take for granted.

I couldn’t let the interview finish without a question about the BBC Proms. Sometimes it needs visiting a foreign country and talking to a international artist to help remind you what you have on your doorstep back home. Speaking about his Proms appearance in 2013, he said:

“It was an incredible experience. It was very hot. It was a heatwave in London. Like here in Verbier, there was a moment as I journeyed to the hall when I realised that there’s this world outside of the performing bubble. We took the Tube in London. There were warnings on the Tube. We got out and walked through Hyde Park and saw people playing football, walking their dog, or having a picnic. And I remember thinking that I was going to the Royal Albert Hall to play to 5000 people and at the same time there were all these people outside the Royal Albert Hall unaware of what’s going to happen inside it, enjoying their day in the park. And ultimately, why shouldn’t I as an individual enjoy your day too, and make the most of it and really enjoy your moment on stage. That really helped me at the BBC Proms to make sure I enjoy the momented. Not be nervous.

Inside, the experience is a very warm emotionally. 5000 people but you don’t feel like it’s 5000 people. It’s entirely unique by the floor and how people sit. The idea of circular seating plan isn’t unique necessarily – it exists in Cologne and Moscow, for example – but you don’t feel the added people in the Royal Albert Hall which is quite something. And you don’t feel you have to play any differently despite the fact of the size of the hall.

And of course, the audience standing and being there during – when you’re sweating your way through the performance. You feel supported by them: there are other people who are there helping you along. The fact that they are doing that with you – standing for 45 minutes is no easy feat – really helps you as a performer.”

It was only after the interview and his point about the Proms experience, that I looked up my own account of Jan’s concert. Waxing lyrcial does come easy to me, it has to be said, but I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t well-deserved. And as I recall, it was incredibly well-deserved too.

At only 18 years old demonstrated remarkable maturity in Schumann’s lyrical melodies. Fantastically fluid lines showed Lisiecki’s effortless delicate touch. A joyously exuberant third movement helped cement Lisiecki’s Proms debut as another season high-point and far and away the best piano concerto performance too.

BBC Proms 2013: Prom 10 / Schumann Piano Concerto / Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2 / Jan Lisiecki / Antonio Pappano

Prom 10 saw Antonio Pappano make the first two Proms appearances this year with the Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia in a safe programme of Mozart’s Haffner, the piano concerto by Schumann and Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

Top-billing and recipient of much well-deserved applause was soloist Jan Lisiecki who at only 18 years old demonstrated remarkable maturity in Schumann’s lyrical melodies. Fantastically fluid lines showed Lisiecki’s effortless delicate touch. A joyously exuberant third movement helped cement Lisiecki’s Proms debut as another season high-point and far and away the best piano concerto performance too.

In stark contrast, Pappano’s Rachmaninov was a hollow affair. Gone was the usual lush string sound. In its place, a much dryer string section which although on the whole was a successful stylistically, the dry sound exposed brief moments of instability between wind and strings which didn’t appear to get resolutely ironed out until the tempestuous second movement. From then on, the strings’ masterly articulation did them proud.

Even so, the necessarily strung-out longing seemed to be missing from the expansive legato sections of the often-rushed third movement (the viola ‘stings’ perhaps marked as to make them more memorable than decorative), making the subsequent fourth more of mad sprint to the end than the tension-reliever it usually feels like.