ALEXANDER NIKOLAYEVICH SCRIABIN (1872 – 1915): Préludes, Op. 11, Nos. 2, 4, 5, 10, 14 – 16, 20; Prélude, Op. 22, No. 1; Prélude, Op. 27, No. 1; Prélude, Op. 35, No. 2; Poème, Op. 41; Danse, Op. 73, No. 2 Flammes sombres; Polonaise, Op. 21; Poème tragique, Op. 34; and Poème satanique, Op. 36 and FRÉDÉRIC FRANÇOIS CHOPIN (1810 – 1849): Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31 and 24 Études for Piano, Opp. 10 and 25 – Valentina Lisitsa, piano [Duke Performances, Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 11 December 2015]
There is a cherished aphorism that suggests that the road leading musicians to the stage of Carnegie Hall is paved with ‘practice, practice, practice.’ Were Carnegie Hall the nexus of a musical Utopia, this would perhaps be the end of the story: those musicians whose talent and perseverance achieve the perfect equilibrium that cannot be taught in any conservatory would assume the places that they deserve in the firmament of artistic luminaries, and all would be right with the world. This, alas, is anything but a world in which all is right, no Utopia in which the deserving are rewarded without fail. This is a world in which extraordinarily gifted artists struggle in obscurity while the recognition their endeavors merit is enjoyed by pretenders whose artistry is in marketing, not music. Even in the realm of Classical Music, where musicians’ abilities to play pieces ought to be far more significant than how they look whilst plying their trade, success is too often gauged not by the quality of a performance but by how many people ‘tweet’ about it. Regrettably, concert-going can be a dishearteningly disappointing experience, especially for young people launching their maiden voyages into ‘serious’ music: what could be more discouraging than finding that admired performers are mere shadows of their punctiliously-promoted reputations? What sustains Classical Music in the dystopian reality of the Twenty-First Century are those glorious instances in which celebrated musicians exceed the expectations engendered by the ballyhoo that heralds them. The Duke Performances Piano Recital series at Duke University provided its audience with such an instance with a recital in Baldwin Auditorium by internationally-acclaimed pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Artists are often mercurial creatures, and the social media maelstroms of which she is a consummate mistress have whirled with commentary on the pianist's political candor, particularly on the topic of the unrest in her native Ukraine. After establishing her credentials as a collaborative artist with a stint as accompanist for Virginia-born violinist Hilary Hahn, it was via a series of widely-viewed YouTube videos—many of them recorded in her adopted home base of New Bern, North Carolina, incidentally—that Lisitsa, a devotee of the piano since the age of three, promulgated evidence of her musical gifts on a global scale. In Durham, she eviscerated any doubts about her ability to match in the concert hall her tantalizing panache before cameras and studio microphones with thoughtfully-planned, luminously-delivered performances of music by Alexdander Scriabin and Frédéric Chopin. Recitals by the greatest pianists can be tedious, but Lisitsa's playing captured the audience's attention from the first note and retained it until she triumphantly bade the enthusiastic throng goodnight.
With a series of acclaimed DECCA recordings to her credit, Lisitsa is among the few pianists in recent memory to have devoted a significant expenditure of creative energy to studying and playing Scriabin’s piano music. Her most recent disc, Nuances [reviewed here], offered a compelling survey of music from virtually the entire span of Scriabin’s compositional career, and her playing of his music in Baldwin Auditorium further confirmed that she is a Scriabin interpreter of the caliber of Vladimir Sofronitsky, the composer’s son-in-law. Though born not in Moscow but in Kiev, Lisitsa seems to share artistic DNA with the Muscovite composer, her interpretations of his music for piano exhibiting the authority of Artur Schnabel's playing of Beethoven and Alicia de Larrocha's handling of Mozart repertory. Like the sequence of works on Nuances, the selections for the portion of her Duke recital dedicated to Scriabin's music displayed an appreciable savvy for using pieces from all phases of Scriabin's career to cogently illustrate the progressive development of his distinctive style.
Opening with the Prelude in B Major (Opus 2, No. 2), the pianist’s traversal of music by Scriabin was remarkable for the range of hues that she coaxed from the instrument. Her technique is well-suited to Scriabin’s style, the great flexibility of her wrists and ease in managing intervals of an octave and greater enabling her to illuminate the expressivity of even the most fatiguing passages. Throughout the recital, her use of the pedals was exemplary: her ability to sustain a single tone whilst applying and releasing the pedals engendered feats of phrasing for which Scriabin surely hoped but must have thought all but impossible. The eight Préludes drawn from the twenty-four that comprise Scriabin’s Opus 11 were chosen with an obvious grasp of their compatibility. As Lisitsa played them, the transitions among individual Préludes were as smooth as those among movements of a sonata. With Nos. 2 in A minor, 4 in E minor, 14 in E-flat minor, 15 in D-flat minor, 16 in B-flat minor, and 20 in C minor, minor keys dominated, but Lisitsa’s playing was wholly free from heaviness. The variety of her accounts of the Préludes was facilitated by far more than different key signatures and tempi: she was a bard telling timeless stories, not just a pianist producing notes. The powerful Préludes Nos. 5 in D Major and 10 in C-sharp Major were conquered, not merely played. Here and in the three subsequent Préludes, the G-sharp minor from Quatre Préludes (Opus 22, No. 1), the G minor from Deux Préludes (Opus 27, No. 1), and the D-flat Major from Trois Préludes (Opus 35, No. 2), Lisitsa built and released anxiety in the music with uncanny dramatic instincts. Under her touch, the major-key Préludes were not without murky shadows, and the numbers in minor keys benefited from glimpses of wry humor.
Scriabin’s Opus 41 Poème is an interlude of marked emotional directness, and Lisitsa dove into its depths without losing sight of the surface, the glow of sunlight never succumbing to the extinguishing abyss. Her performance of Flammes sombres, the second of the Opus 73 Deux Danses, sizzled with ardor, the relative sobriety of the music sharpening the sting of her uninhibited playing. The Polonaise (Opus 21) is, like its cousin in Act Three of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, a vital fusion of Polish form with Russian spirit. It was impossible to overlook these traits in Lisitsa’s performance. She ended the first half of the recital with Poème tragique (Opus 34) and Poème satanique (Opus 36), two of Scriabin’s most unique works, and both were fired into the auditorium like meteorites. The ‘tragic’ trajectory of the Opus 34 Poème was traced with imagination and boldly expansive phrasing. The interpretive significance of every virtuosic flourish was carefully examined and integrated into Lisitsa’s approach to the music. No one in Baldwin Auditorium ‘went down to Georgia’ during Friday evening’s performance of Poème satanique, but Charlie Daniels would have been most pleased by Lisitsa’s fearless, ferociously inflammatory playing of Scriabin’s diabolical music.
Like most composers of music for piano whose careers began in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, Scriabin was strongly influenced by the work of Frédéric Chopin. Not an artist who is content to accept—or ask her audiences to accept—conventional wisdom without meticulously evaluating the solidity of its foundations, Lisitsa delved into a sonorous explication of the kinship between the Polish composer’s music and the work of his Russian successor by employing for the second half of her Duke recital a programme of pieces by Chopin. In its unabashed Romanticism, her playing of the physically frail but emotionally flamboyant composer’s music recalled the Chopin interpretations of Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, the latter having also been a champion of Scriabin’s music, but the full-bodied delicacy with which she emphasized the bel canto melodic lines, sometimes seeming to transform the Steinway before her into a turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Bösendorfer, brought to mind Ingrid Haebler’s little-remembered but sublime Chopin interpretations. Unfortunately, Lisitsa was compelled to share the second half of her recital with the conversational obbligato of a gentleman—seated at the front, as such gentlemen invariably are—who seemed physiologically incapable of silence. Such was Lisitsa’s preparation that, though she played from memory, her concentration was never disturbed. The intensity with which she phrased Chopin’s barnstorming Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor (Opus 31) was explosive. The familiar strains of the Scherzo’s first bars poured into the auditorium like the boiling waters of a geyser. Never shrinking from dynamic extremes, Lisitsa could fill the space with massive outbursts of sound or, like Zinka Milanov soaring to her trademark pianissimo top B♭ in Act One of La Gioconda, reduce the tone to an always-audible whisper. The symmetry of her playing of the Scherzo was defined by the contrasting rhythmic precision of repetitions of the principal theme and the elasticity of her handling of the development.
Collectively, the twenty-four Études that constitute Chopin’s Opera 10 and 25 are a sequence of works as important to the keyboard as Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. In the Études, Chopin magnificently tested and in many ways redefined the capabilities of the piano, following Beethoven's lead in establishing the instrument as a concertizing entity in its own right. The foremost wonder of Lisitsa's readings of the Études was her attention to the links among the pieces. Performed without pause, the Études were presented like tableaux vivants within an elaborate musical cyclorama. It seems invidious to consider Lisitsa’s performance of the Études as anything but a gargantuan but astoundingly coherent whole. As in Scriabin’s music, she utilized crescendi and rallentandi in highly individual ways, highlighting the Études’ episodic nature. When playing arpeggios, she often seemed to be playing a harp rather than a piano, and the instrument responded to her touch as though it were an extension of her own body. Lisitsa’s is a dramatic style of pianism, but her technique is clearly founded upon an effort to evince tension in the music by relaxing the musculature employed in playing. Indeed, there were moments on Friday evening when it would have been easy to assume that the music was coming from the lady on stage rather than from the piano. In truth, the instrument was sporadically unworthy of her: the brightness of the upper two octaves of the compass typical of a Steinway undermined the homogeneity of tone that Lisitsa sought, but this limitation did not lessen her astonishing ability to reveal the inner voices ‘singing’ in the Études. The lighter of the Études were sweetly playful, and the darker moments alternated tenderness and thundering potency. As Chopin’s music flowed from Lisitsa’s fingers, the only possible reaction was to surrender oneself to the deluge and rejoice in being submerged in sounds so lovingly shared.
Since its composition in 1847, Franz Liszt’s (1811 – 1886) Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor (S.244/2) has been a staple of the repertoires of pianists capable of playing it—and, to be frank, of the repertoires of more than a few pianists not up to the task. One of Lisitsa’s most-viewed YouTube videos preserves a performance of the Rhapsody, but her playing of the piece as the encore in her Duke recital possessed a frisson that no recording can convey. The lilting rhythms of the lassú were realized with great bite, and the incendiary frishka intoxicated with the hearty flavor of one of Hungary’s legendary ‘bull’s blood’ wines. The Rhapsody offered an opportunity for Lisitsa to unabashedly display her awesome virtuosity, of course, but in the context of this recital it also emerged as a natural bridge between the milieux of Chopin and Scriabin. Lisitsa’s performance of the Rhapsody was not without a welcome dose of showmanship, but even her showmanship is soulful.
Ideally, a recital should reveal as much about the pianist as about the composers whose music is performed. Anyone who entered Baldwin Auditorium on Friday evening without a familiarity with the music of Alexander Scriabin should have departed with as intimate an acquaintance with the composer and his artistry as many music lovers acquire via lifetimes of listening. Music for the piano by few composers is more widely known than that by Frédéric Chopin, but Chopin, too, was essentially reintroduced, his music played not as polite, pretty salon pieces but as genre-defining offspring of an incomparable artistic mind. There were a few wrong notes, amounting to nothing, but, crucially, the expressive ethos of Friday evening's recital was resoundingly right. Valentina Lisitsa revealed the glistening facets of her artistic personality with a recital that exuded confidence and faith in the communicative power of music. Such magisterial playing is not achieved solely by ‘practice, practice, practice,’ but how wonderful it is to experience the work of an artist who, in practice and not just in reputation, truly deserves that distinction.
Artist in Action: Internationally-acclaimed pianist Valentina Lisitsa, recitalist in Duke Performances Piano Recital series at Baldwin Auditorium on the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, 11 December 2015 [Photo by Gilbert François, © by DECCA / Universal Music Group]