Monday 22 April 2013

Valentina Lisitsa more than lives up to expectations with her complete Rachmaninov concertos on Decca

I first heard Valentina Lisitsa play when listening to the car radio. It was her incredibly fluid playing in the brief extract from Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto that grabbed my attention making me want to find out who it was that was playing.

It was only when I received a review copy of her Decca recording of all four of Rachmaninov’s Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody and read the booklet notes, that the full story of Lisitsa’s struggle to find an audience came clear. On these new recordings made at the Abbey Road Studios, London, Lisitsa is joined by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Francis .

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Having been attracted to her playing from that brief radio clip, it was with an unbiased state of mind that I approached the full recording of the Third Concerto and, indeed, the other concertos on these discs.

Some critics, as was to be expected, have been suspicious of her ‘sudden’ rise to fame and the ensuing Decca contract, speaking of her superficial playing. Surely a pianist who became popular due to YouTube must be suspect. The general public can’t possibly be trusted to tell if a pianist is any good. Well, on the evidence of these new discs, from Decca, they can.

Valentina Lisitsa was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1973 and began playing the piano at the age of three, performing her first solo recital a year later. She gained a place at the Lysenko Music School for Gifted Children and later studied at the Kiev Conservatory under Ludmilla Tsvierko. In 1991 she won the first prize in The Murray Dranoff Two Piano Competition  together with Alexei Kuznetsoff.

In 1991 she moved to the USA with her piano duo partner and future husband, Alexei Kuznetsov where she undertook further study. In 2001 Lisitsa decided to start a solo career but apparently due to problems with her agent her career stalled.

Lisitsa decided to use YouTube to show her pianistic talents to a wider public. The YouTube videos went viral, leading to her now having well over 50,000 followers around the world making her one of the most watched classical musicians on the Web. She has performed in venues around the world, including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and the Musikverein. In May 2010, Valentina Lisitsa performed the Dutch premiere of Rachmaninoff’s “New 5th” Concerto (an arrangement of the second symphony) in her debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and in August 2011 made her debut with the Orchestra Sinfonica Brasileira under Lorin Maazel.

Valentina Lisitsa has recorded three independently-released DVDs, including her best-selling set of Chopin’s 24 Etudes.  Her recording of Charles Ives’ four violin sonatas, made with Hilary Hahn, was released in October 2011. Valentina Lisitsa will appear at the BBC Proms in London on Saturday 31 August 2013 .

So what of Valentina Lisitsa’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30 of which I had heard such a small excerpt? In the opening Allegro ma non tento Lisitsa adopts a faster tempo than many, indeed closer to Rachmaninov’s own no nonsense approach. When the piano commences its intricate passage work, Lisitsa’s technique is very impressive. There is clarity to her playing with absolutely no smudging of phrases. Michael Francis provides an equally brisk pace in the orchestral passages. Yet there are some very special poetic moments as well as massively impressive chords. And, of course, there is that lovely fluency that I had heard on the radio. The cadenza is quite formidably played.

In the Intermezzo. Adagio, Michael Francis achieves some lovely orchestral sounds in the opening, with a lovely rubato, reminiscent of Ormandy in Rachmaninov’s own recording of 1939/40. When Lisitsa enters there is superb clarity and, as the music progresses, some terrifically bold phrases. There is that beautiful rippling left hand again in some lovely passages and, at the halfway restatement of the main theme, such a feeling of spontaneity. In the Finale (Alla breve) it is again the clarity, phrasing and fluidity of Lisitsa’s playing that enables the music to never seem rushed, despite the tempo. There are some terrific passages of extraordinary brilliance in this finale and exquisite delicacy in places. The coda is full of breadth and bravura.

Rachmaninov’s early Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1 was one of the scores that he took with him on leaving Russia, which he was in the process of revising. It has a sparkling opening Vivace with, again, Lisitsa giving playing that is clear and agile with a lovely rhythmic bounce. Francis’ accompaniment is quite beautifully done, seeming almost to have a subtle portamento in some of the playing. There are scintillating passages but much poetry as well and a phenomenal cadenza brilliantly done.

There is a beautifully balanced andante with so many thoughtful touches before the Allegro vivace which receives a really joyous performance as well as a limpid trio section full of spontaneous sounding phrases.

The Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 is not an easy work to approach with all its filmic associations as well as many past performances. However, the Moderato opens with some full blooded playing as the piano and orchestra push ahead, never overly dwelling on sentiment. Again Lisitsa’s clarity and beautiful touch stand out as does the poetry she brings to the slower passages, with some lovely moments. There is a beautifully paced Adagio sostenuto, full of subtle rubato. So finely controlled is Litsitsa’s playing and, indeed, Michael Francis’ direction that the music is never allowed to become bombastic even as the music begins to build towards the middle of the movement. The coda is simply lovely.

Lisitsa shows her formidable technique in the opening of the Allegro scherzando with both soloist and orchestra carefully controlling the emotional content in a movement that, in some hands, could easily become saccharine. As the movement progresses, the conductor and soloist appear to work so well together (despite only meeting on the day of the recording). Towards the end, her lovely touch and phrasing are again very evident and she is not afraid to go for a big bold coda.

The greatly underestimated Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op.40 is always difficult to bring off but Lisitsa and Francis seem to bring something very special to this work. In the Allegro vivace, after the opening statement, there are some lovely little phrases in the wistful sections, with Lisitsa making the most of the improvisatory nature of the slower passages. So engrossed was I, that I forgot for a while that I was supposed to be writing about the performance. Lisitsa, more than any other pianist, brings out the strange combination of romanticism and hints of a more modern idiom refracted through Rachmaninov’s nostalgia. There are some lovely woodwind phrases in Francis’ lovely accompaniment.

Lisitsa highlights so much of the strange hesitancy in the oddly dark largo showing the autumnal nature of the work, so much so, that when there is a stormy outburst it is made to sound all the more shocking. This is a remarkable performance of this movement and, as it broadens in its romantic feel towards the end, it seems like only a reminiscence.  The Allegro vivace is made to shake the gloom and introspection of the largo away, though the reminiscences still appear in some of the quieter piano passages. Michael Francis and the orchestra draw out some strangely beautiful sounds, full of distant emotion before the music builds, with fabulous playing from Lisitsa, as the coda arrives. These artists make something rather special of this concerto.

In the opening of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 there is some beautifully pointed playing. There are many fine moments in this performance but just listen to variations four and five to hear Lisitsa’s clarity of phrasing or the glorious variation number seven with its quote of the Dies Irae with a wonderful orchestral contribution. Variation twelve is particularly beautifully done, with limpid playing and the soloist and orchestra working so well together. Lisitsa’s playing is truly scintillating in variation fifteen, so fine and clear and, when the famous eighteenth variation arrives, she keeps a fine balance of emotion. There is a lovely orchestral rubato and a terrific climax in this wonderful inversion of Paganini’s theme. As the formidably played variation twenty two runs through variation twenty three into the scintillating last variation we arrive at Rachmaninov’s lovely throw away ending.

By now you may have realised that I am extremely impressed with these performances. Decca have done Valentina Lisitsa proud with a truly fine recording that allows all the orchestral details to imerge.

I would very much like to hear more from this artist and look forward to what Decca will encourage her to record next.


  1. From my watching of her exquisite performances along the Last few years, and from the interviews she made within that duration, I can conclude a few characteristics of the lovely and the great Valentina Lisitsa,,, artistically or technically as a musically and pianistically wise,,,, I believe that I wouldn't be able to find words to express my impression towards her utmost perfection, more than the words I always read of critics, and her fans comments,,,, She certainly possesses some exceptional qualities, mental, psychological, and spiritual qualities,,, mentally such as sharp intelligence, exclusive memory ( I believe it's mostly fantastic photographic memory), a hyper concentration ability, and psychological, such as a high self-esteem, an absolute dedication to her work, she loves her work in a sacred way, very honest and loyal person to her work, to her family( husband and son), to her friends, to her fans, and to herself, she is strict and serious once she steps on the stage,,, she is a child, just a merry child even, among her family members (and perhaps her pets too) or her close friends, you may find her the first one laying her hand to help anyone around her that she finds in need of help, either she knows him, her, It, or not,, she knows quiet firmly what responsibility is,, therefore, she pays a great respect to her work, and in turn to her audience and fans, she is a very kindhearted and modest person, and saves no effort to please as much as she can everyone around her, and that includes her audience obviously,,, when you listen to her, when you watch her playing, you feel that she is trying to transmit her feelings, her sensations, her inner emotions of the work she is performing or let's say interpreting, to you, by all the means she could have,, that's why you feel yourself drawn or attracted to what she is performing, as if something ethereal is being transmitted between her and you,,, that's why she might be considered one of the greatest piano music interpreters of all time, (at least that's in my personal belief), and as I'd mentioned before,,, only someone with such QUALITIES, and SOUL PURITY, can produce such RADIATING BEAUTY.....That's why Valentina Lisitsa is what she is,,,, Thank you dear Valina for being with us, as you beyond doubt, whether you're performing or not, YOU always are ... Samy F Hedayah.

    1. Thank you Samy for putting into words all the thoughts and emotions engendered by Valentina's performances and interviews. I have tried several times to convey the same thoughts, but I have always fallen short. It goes without saying that I agree completely with your assessment of Valentina as a pianist, a mother, a friend and as a kind and compassionate citizen of the world. Thank God for his blessings in Valentina.

    2. Valentina Lisitsa is one of the favorite women personalities for the last five years. She belongs to North Carolina just recently shifted into France and then to Italy. I can additionally attend her performance Tranexamic Technologies. She completed her education at The National Tchaikovsky Music Academy of Ukraine, Lysenko music school.

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  2. I purchased this two-CD set shortly after it was released in the U.S., and I listen to it often. I already knew and loved the 2nd and 3rd concertos and the Rhapsody, but Ms. Lisitsa has pulled me into the 1st and 4th, as well.