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New York
Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92 Street Y
10/18/2013 -  
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Preludes in G major, G-sharp minor & B minor, Op. 32, No. 5, No. 12 & No. 10 – Preludes in G minor, E-flat major & B-flat major, Op. 23, No. 5, No. 6 & No. 2
Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata No. 2 in B minor Op. 61
Frederic Chopin: Nocturnes in F minor, F major, C-sharp minor, F-sharp major, C minor, D-flat major, C-sharp minor & E-flat major, Op. 55, No. 1, Op. 15, No. 1, Op. 27, No. 1, Op. 15, No. 2, Op. 48, No. 1, Op. 27, No. 2, Op. posth. & Op. 9, No. 2
Franz Liszt: Totentanz

Valentina Lisitsa (Pianist)

V. Litsitsa (© Axel Kuznetsoff)

Wynton Marsalis said once, “It isn’t the technique. It’s the nuance.” And Valentina Lisitsa, for her New York debut last night, had nuances that could have stretched from the 92nd Street Y all the way to her birthplace, Kiev.

In case you hadn’t heard of her before, you might be too old (though the pianist herself is no youngster at 39). But she definitely was a star for the packed-out audience which may have heard her infinite times. When she and her husband were doing only adequately well as duo-pianists, she bit the bullet and put herself on YouTube with a Rachmaninoff prelude. The result was viral. Today, Ms. Lisitsa’s YouTube channel was more than 60 million (that’s 60 million!) views and 92,000 subscribers.

Today Ms. Lisitsa prides herself on being “the first classical music YouTube star”.

More than that, her performances throughout Europe, America and Asia, alone or with superb orchestra, and her recordings, have made her a literally self-made luminary.

Thus back to the beginning. Her concerto performances are highly rated because a conductor is around to rein in her idiosyncrasies. Her splendid record of the Ives violin/piano sonatas with Hilary Hahn, was successful because she had Ms. Hahn to rein her in.

Last night, though, she responded to the enthusiastic audience with some very questionable Rachmaninoff and almost painfully sentimental Chopin. Perhaps the Rachmaninoff preludes could tolerate her personality, since “romantic” playing does allow the performer to be flexible. Flexibility, though, does not mean distortion. And the problem was that (to paraphrase the children’s nursery rhyme), “When Ms. Lisitsa was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad she was...well...still pretty damned awesome.”

She is undoubtedly a most serious pianist, an artist paying utmost attention to every note. Even without the Bõsendorfer piano, her hands were as graceful as her notes, she elevated them, she dived down with the elegance of a ballet dancer. Yet such attention, such adoration of each note, such a conscious aim to give the audience all the music she could possibly provide, proved equally disconcerting.

The Rachmaninoff preludes are frescos or murals, and I’m afraid they were often stretched into tapestries. The theme of the opening Rachmaninoff Opus 32, Number 5 speaks for itself. Ms. Lisitsa stretched it out so we could hear it even clearer. The Lento description of Opus 32, Number 10 does not mean a leisurely picking and choosing, it means a kind of grandeur and the pianist seemed to avoid any hint of nobility. Perhaps in the Opus 23, Number 6, she could allow such flowery playing, but the flowers began to droop towards the end.

But oh, how she triumphed in some of the other preludes. The Opus 23, Number 5 had the kind of fervor that wouldn’t have been out place in the Chopin “Revolutionary” etude, and the final Opus 23, Number 2 was sharp, snappy, played with all the bravura which it deserved.

For the second half, Ms. Lisitsa faced an even more formidable challenge. For with her gently loving care, her tenderness, her concern for every moment, she took no less than eight Chopin nocturnes. She obviously loves them and took care of them as a mother would care for a newborn child. But at the same time, each nocturne’s perfectly formed duration was inevitably transformed into her idea of a heavenly length.

That heavenliness came close to infinity. In the final Opus 9, Number 2 E Flat Nocturne, she improvised a few notes and while she is hardly the first to do so, in this case, at least one’s interest was piqued.

These two collective sections were the “bad and awesome” part of the program. When she was good...well, they don’t come much better.

Ms. Lisitsa almost ruined the rarely played Shostakovich Second Sonata with a long dissertation to supersede the perfectly adequate program notes. Fortunately, she played the work with such spirit, such atmosphere in the second movement and such absolute clarity in the last movement variations, that she was forgiven for her previous prolixity.

The final work, Liszt’s Totentanz has to be the blockbuster (and the balls-buster) for any pianist. Prior to the concert I listened to one of her YouTube recordings, which was impressive for the speed (she beats other by at least a minute) and the perfection.

Last night, she didn’t try for the Guinness book but this was easily the most astonishing performance I’ve ever heard, live or in recordings. Especially live, since the sounds, fury and vibrations could never be repeated electronically.

The miracle wasn’t in the velocity but that the Dies Irae variations were so clearly heard beneath the smoke and the fire. It was savage, brilliant, violent, unrelenting–though I was frankly worried that all those bodies in Woodlawn Cemetery were going to burst through their coffins and march through New York.

I left the auditorium after this, partly since I had major misgivings that the audience was supposed to “vote” for an encore. (Instead of the usual pseudo-spontaneous “Oh! I-Didn’t-Expect-Such-A-Reception-So-Let-Me-Surprise-You-With-A-Musical-Gift”). More important, I walked out then for I didn’t wish to lessen the effects of the Liszt with a modifying bagatelle.

Instead, I needed to get my balance back, open my glazed eyes and ears and stroll down the sedate East Side with Ms. Lisitsa’s volcanic Day of Fire endlessly igniting in my head.

Harry Rolnick



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