Friday, August 19, 2011

Valentina Lisitsa Review

Valentina Lisitsa, piano
Bennett-Gordon Hall
Thursday, August 18, 2011. 6:00pm.


•Hungarian Rhapsody 12 (Announced from stage)

•Fantasy in C minor, K. 475

•Seven Nocturnes (Op. 55/1, 15/1, 27/1, 15/2, 48/1, 27/2, 9/2)

Leopold Godowsky
•Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes from Johann Strauss II's "Die Fledermaus"


•Six Lieder Transcriptions (Gute Nacht, Das Mädchens Klage, Der Erlkönig, Der Doppelgänger, Der Müeller und der Bach, Ständchen)

•Impromptu in B flat major, D. 935/3

•Totentanz (Concert Paraphrase on Dies Irae)

Tonight, I spent a very pleasant evening watching and listening to Valentina Lisitsa. I like to go into a concert with as clear a mind as possible, and with as few expectations as possible, but tonight, I couldn't. 

Firstly, I went in knowing who Valentina Lisitsa was and what she was known for; she has a huge YouTube presence, and before I went to this performance tonight, I had the pleasure of watching many of her videos. Almost without exception, her videos display tremendous speed, agility, and power in the pieces she plays, and as a result, I (and everyone else in the hall, I believe) went in with an expectation of impressive bravura playing. 

Secondly, I knew her program before I went. For a performer who's reputation is based almost solely on high-power pieces, I was a little intrigued to see that she would be programming the rarely played Mozart C minor fantasy along with a group of nocturnes. I went to see her because I knew about her enormous technique and I wanted to see for myself what kind of a show she would put on in person. 

Lisitsa wore a strapless black dress which hugged her legs, and thus required her to walk across the stage carefully. She bowed once and sat down. Immediately, the audience was taken for a surprise. She spoke. 

In a shy voice with a thick, much-too-fast-for-the-resonance-of-the-hall Ukrainian accent, she informed the audience she just found out that it was a Liszt festival at Ravinia, and that she would like to play a Liszt piece while the audience is getting seated. She played the twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody. 

Liszt was born in the Kingdom of Hungary, but spent most of his educational life in France. Though he identified himself as a hungarian, the cosmopolitan lifestyle brought on from extensively touring Europe at such a young age left him without a strong sense of roots. Later in life he came to regret moving away from his homeland so early and in one touching example of his pathos, he enthusiastically began a letter to his mother in Hungarian, but was unable to sustain it, and halfway through the letter, reverted to French, the language with which he was the most comfortable. Via using melodies which he believed to be hungarian folk tunes, the Rhapsodies were his attempt at exalting the vestiges of his homeland which he could remember. Ironically, however, none of the melodies contained in any of the rhapsodies actually are. 

Of all the 19 rhapsodies, the one Ms. Lisitsa played is the second most popular. (The second rhapsody was popularized by Tom, Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Donald AND Daffy.) Lisitsa prowled through the rhapsody (which was very sufficiently rhapsodic) delivering light-as-a-feather, perfectly poised trills in places that frequently invite laden, overlong executions from players without taste. She showed us that she knew how to give us chords that could be described as multicolored, angular or round, lush or sharp, dense or pointed. With the panoply of control that she displayed in that first, preemptive selection, the only unusual aspect of her playing was that when she passed through a section requiring moderately fast, quiet octaves, she played the octaves from her arm instead of from with her wrist. This is a minor detail, but the usual rule is that octaves you play octaves with the wrist unless power is needed, then you use your arm. It gave that one section the feeling of being overpowered (as in possessing too much power) for what the music was trying to say. More on that in a minute. 

Next, she gave a dark, romantic reading of the Mozart Fantasia in C minor. Though Mozart is a composer squarely from the classical period (the era of "easy listening", dotted i's and crossed t's), the prevailing sentiment in this particular piece is one of angst, anger and volatility–emotions that dominate aesthetics in the romantic era, where Liszt and everyone else on the program lives. A lesser musician might have tried to steamroll the piece into sounding more "classical" and might underplay the piece, in an attempt to dilute or remove entirely the passion. Ms. Lisitsa did no such thing.

Though less demanding in a physical sense, Mozart's music frequently requires very subtle control over tiny movements within the fingers. Lisitsa had no trouble controlling her tone. However, when the music presented opportunities for subtle shading–subordinate melodic sequences, for example–the variety of her shading left a bit to be desired. In any other composer, these are small concerns, but this is Mozart–the essence of Mozart's charm lives in the variety of shades between medium loud and medium soft; In the few moments where Mozart says the same thing twice, he usually intends it to vary, even if only by a degree. Many performers would tell you that herein the very trouble with performing Mozart; if you play a repeat with another composer the same way, the audience might not notice they just heard the same music twice, but do that with Mozart, and all of a sudden every spider in the rafters wants to call you unimaginative. 

Now, in the seven (!) Chopin nocturnes, Ms. Lisitsa demonstrated that she could demonstrate fine shading. The nocturnes came as a welcome surprise–usually when one hears a performer who plays a lot of loud and fast pieces, in a world where to succeed one has to "play to one's strengths", usually they are somewhat lacking in their ability to project soft or slow pieces convincingly. Lisitsa had no problem enveloping her listeners in a warm, poised sound for these masterpieces. 

Despite the inherent trouble in playing seven slow ternary pieces one right after the other (she told me after the concert that she didn't pick the program, although she obviously OK'd it) she held the group together by playing them without interruption, and organizing them in a very good order based on their key relationships, so that the beginning of each piece seemed to "blossom" because of its tonal relationship with how the previous piece ended. 

Chopin championed Mozart and Bach above all other composers, and he constantly strove to achieve the economy of writing in his works that they did. As a result, Chopin's music, though not always demanding delicacy, usually benefits from scrupulous attention to shading and clarity the way Mozart and Bach do. The final nocturne in E flat (Op. 9/2) was delicate and perfect, and the D flat nocturne (Op. 27/2) was handled as suavely as anybody could ask for. Her tone was always impeccable, and her feeling during the slow parts of each nocturne was always rich with repose and tenderness. But on the whole, the seven nocturnes were wonderful, yet not exquisite. Almost without exception, each of Chopin's nocturnes has a contrasting section that changes moods and runs the risk of being overdone by being faster than the rest, or having higher-than-average note density, or a peculiar rhythm, and during these moments, Ms. Lisitsa let go a little too much. 

In the F minor nocturne (55/1), the pentuplet rhythm in the contrasting middle section sounded like it was rushed for dear life. Contrarily, the F major nocturne (15/1) breaks abruptly to the key of F minor during the second third with a repeated harmonic interval in the right hand and violent statements in the left. Ms. Lisitsa stormed through it reducing the piece to a jumble of F minor-ness. In the C minor nocturne (Op. 48/1, the shining masterpiece of the nocturnes) the heartbreaking opening melody, while begun in isolated notes, giving the music a sense of space and desolation, is recapitulated with octaves and repeated chords, creating melos that ebbs and surges with heavy passion. This recap has the capability of drowning the listener with the sheer overpowering force of the melody's emotionality, but Ms. Lisitsa got carried away with the emotion of the piece (like many, many pianists before her; I am no exception) and shuddered through the climax leaving the music sounding frustrated and unfulfilled. The three final chords came sounding tense and resentful, a rather unpleasant ending for a "night song".

Godowsky had one of the most famously dexterous pianistic mechanisms of all time. The man practiced assiduously, and overcame his own problems with his own personal solutions, and as a result, he was able to play music without trouble, and write music of peerless intricacy. The Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes from Johann Strauss II's "Die Fledermaus" is a work to be played by just such a musician. It goes without saying that the technical difficulties are great, and though Ms. Lisitsa may have been technically up to the challenge, her performance lacked the very thing that Godowsky himself sometimes eschewed: dash. The last public performance I have seen of this piece was when Yeol Eum Son performed it at the semi-finals of the 13th Van Cliburn piano competition. Hers had perhaps a bit more clarity than Ms. Lisitsa's, but I came away from it feeling the same way–if you're going to play a piece displaying that mountainous level of virtuosity, you had better bring the goods. A piece like this needs to flow like a river of flames, and for some reason, tonight, it just couldn't.

Ms. Lisitsa prefaced the second half of the program with a very entertaining (if hard to understand) disquisition on how the story of each piece applies to the nature of Schubert the unsung romantic hero. 

There was magic in the six Schubert-Liszt pieces. The first and second pieces were slow, and she took us to great heights. The fourth piece, Der Doppelgänger, depicts the speaker visiting the place where his love once lived and sees a double of himself there. Schubert, in his intimate mastery of telling a story with music sets a slow and complex vocal line against soft, long piano chords to invoke the sensation of the speaker's intractable melancholy against the unstoppable passage of time. The transcription of the Doppelgänger is difficult to pull off on piano because of its extreme slowness–tones die away very fast on the piano with notes this long, and most of the charm of the melody is in the way the singer's voice rises and falls on a note while the piano's chords die away. Frankly, it is one of my favorite pieces of all time, and though I personally take issue with the piece because the piano (a percussion instrument, as Ms. Lisitsa was apt to point out) can't be made to deliver a melody quite as convincingly as a good singer might, her performance of it was a runaway success. 

The Erlkönig and Ständchen are the two most famous transcriptions, Ständchen having one of the most famous melodies in the world. Erlkönig is through-composed but very strophic, and Ständchen is strictly strophic, but each work has a technically demanding climax towards the end where the piece either speeds up or the texture gets thicker, and each time when it did, the problem of rushing through dramatic climaxes reared its unwelcome head. Though in the Erlkönig it was somewhat fitting with the drama of the story (you owe it to yourself to look up the poem by Goethe), it was maddening in the echo section of Ständchen.

The Schubert impromptu was perfect for her. Everything the music demanded, she provided: full tone, clear touch, humor, darkness when the variations went into the minor mode–she had it all. She finished the impromptu and, taking us by surprise, proceeded uninterrupted into the Totentanz (Dance of Death).

The youtube video of her performing this piece is breathtaking. The Totentanz is 15 minutes of a sort of pyrotechnic extemporization, and it might be a really dramatic showpiece in the hands of an artist with just the right amount of volatility and control. Ms. Lisitsa played some parts of it better than in the video and some not as well. There is a section right before the middle of the piece where after a big buildup, the main theme is played with high speed repeated notes. In that moment, at that crucial juncture, where her playing and dexterity were most exposed, she balked: she pedaled through it, losing the bullet-like clarity of the passage, and then played some of her few exposed wrong notes of the evening. 

After the Totentanz, she was called back to the stage three times, after which, she gave an "oh, I suppose" head nod to the piano and gave a very soft, understated performance of Für Elise by Beethoven. In that rondo, there are two contrasting sections that virtuosos often blitz through. Ms. Lisitsa tastefully did no such thing. 

My impression of the evening was that Ms. Lisitsa is an artist with a vibrant temperament and who frequently plays with abandon–she more often chooses to "let herself go" with the music–but not [yet] one of knowing restraint or probing intelligence or scrupulous attention to detail. Her virtuoso playing is extremely good, but it wasn't tempered enough to give the Godowsky the élan that makes the piece sound as dashing as it is. It's the highly intelligent and very unusual artist who can pull off the taxing programming decision to play seven Chopin nocturnes in a row. The moments that require subtlety in playing Chopin are pretty straightforward, but in Mozart they are not, and we noticed. Her tone and touch were gorgeous in all the pieces (especially the 12th Hungarian Rhapsody), even though her structural understanding sometimes left the pieces feeling overlong or winded. Her damming of the torpedoes in the final climax of the Totentanz was welcome and exciting, but in the Nocturnes, and the lieder transcriptions, it was just...a little too much excitement.