Concert review: Valentina Lisitsa fascinates and frustrates

Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. -- PHOTO: GILBERT FRANCOIS
Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa. -- PHOTO: GILBERT FRANCOIS

It is a wonder that classical musicians haven't taken to social media the way pop artists have. With the advent of YouTube, Twitter and FaceBook, it has never been easier to reach out to the masses for self-promotion.

Since her last visit to Singapore in 2007, Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa's popularity on the Internet has exploded with millions having viewed her videos. Not content with merely uploading clips of her performances, she has also been filmed playing on pianos in train stations and airports, as well as on the streets of Europe.

Her last recital here, an entire programme of works by Franz Liszt, was most remembered for her playing at breakneck speed. While she has matured considerably as an artist since then, many frustrating elements of that night were still evident in her playing on Wednesday night at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The metallic-sounding Steinway grand did not help her cause, as she struggled to give voice to the different layers of Beethoven's Piano Sonata In D Minor Op. 31 No. 2. The German composer's works require the utmost discipline in tempi, but Lisitsa's penchant for brushing aside the inner details of phrases and always being ahead of the pulse threatened to derail the performance.

Liszt's Piano Sonata In B Minor is considered by many to be the finest work ever written for the piano, with the single-movement work spanning 30 minutes based on just five short motifs. It was in this work that the best and worst of Lisitsa was on full display, reducing the sonata to a vulgar spectacle.

There is no other pianist capable of producing the effortless cantabile sound that she coaxes from the keyboard. With its velvety quality that seems to emanate from nothingness, one can be forgiven for not realising that the piano is a percussive instrument.

Using this to maximum effect, she conjured the most mesmerisingly surreal phrasing in the slower sections. Her unique ability to incorporate the use of rubato without lingering, but instead altering the touch and articulation on notes, was understated beauty.

It makes it all the more baffling that she chose to rush through the more technical passages at a speed so fast one could barely hear the notes through the mess of sound, and giving the impression that she did not know what to do with the music at hand.

She showed much more control and restraint in the second half of her programme, with Busoni's transcription of the Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2 For Solo Violin being both authoritative and imaginative. It was just as well that she resisted any inclination to thunder through this work as by now the piano had started to go out of tune.

Chopin's 24 Etudes Op. 10 and 25 contain some of the composer's most ingenious and striking writing, and it is a pity that most pianists choose to take the literal meaning of the word Etude and perform them like technical exercises.

In Lisitsa's hands, the set morphed into the most lyrical and hauntingly introverted this reviewer has ever heard in a live performance.

The sheer joy she brought to Op. 10 No. 5, 8, and Op. 25 No. 9 was infectious, and when paired with the tormented mourning of Op. 10 No. 6 and Op. 25 No. 7 created musical poetry at its finest.

Her three-hour-long recital finally came to an end after she performed three more works by Liszt as encore - Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, La Campanella and the Totentanz For Solo Piano, leaving the audience in awe of her superhuman power and stamina.

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