A virtuoso for the Internet age: The greatest pianist you never heard of

Valentina Lisitsa: Who needs concert halls?

6 minute read
Lisitsa: Where did she come from?
Lisitsa: Where did she come from?
My friend Bill, a professional musician who seems to be always up to date on hot newcomers, asked me the other day if I'd ever heard of the pianist Valentina Lisitsa. I said that I hadn't. "Neither had I," he replied. "My brother sent me an e-mail about her. She's amazing. Check out her performance of the Appassionata on YouTube. She plays the last movement even faster than [Sviatislav] Richter." Within a few hours, I was watching this clip.

Although I'm perennially annoyed by critics and concertgoers who hail prodigious newcomers as "the next [fill in your favorite deceased keyboard titan]," any pianist who dares play this movement will inevitably be judged by the standards of the legendary recordings of Richter and Vladimir Horowitz. (See my BSR August 2009 article on Horowitz's recordings of the Appassionata.) It seems clear to me that Lisitsa can be counted among that elite company, even if she doesn't play the finale any faster than Richter, who took it too fast, anyway— much faster than the tempo that Beethoven directed, Allegro ma non troppo ("fast, but not too much so").

There's a reason Bill hadn't heard of Lisitsa. Whether by choice or circumstance, she has eschewed most of the usual appurtenances of a brilliant young concert pianist's career. Lisitsa doesn't as yet exist as a solo performer on iTunes. Although her Wikipedia entry mentions that she has made some CDs for an outfit called Audiofon records, I've found no evidence on that website that these CDs still actually exist. Her own website says only that CDs will be online soon.

Impossibly difficult pieces

In this same website Lisitsa lists several Mozart piano concertos, but I've been unable to find any historical record that she has performed them. Lisitsa's concert schedule isn't what you'd expect for one of the world's great pianists: She played an engagement in Germany in December 2010 but, in 2011, only a few scattered performance dates are scheduled, mostly near her digs in rural North Carolina.

Instead, Lisitsa's medium of choice has been YouTube videos. I've spent hours sampling her performances in this medium and still feel that I've only scratched the surface of what is available.

Lisitsa plays Beethoven's impossibly difficult Hammerklavier Sonata, spread over several YouTube segments, with jaw-dropping authority and power. In general, whenever she plays big virtuoso pieces, she always gives me the impression that she still has about a third of her power in reserve.

But for me, the true measure of Lisitsa's musicianship is her ability to play simply and beautifully. Here are two examples: Beethoven's Für Elise, and a wonderfully relaxed rendition of Schubert's Impromptu in B-flat Major, Op. 142, No. 3. (I've devoted a good part of the last four months striving to do justice to this ineffably lovely and deceptively difficult Impromptu. I would sell my soul to play Schubert with anything like Lisitsa's gentleness and dynamic control.)

Like home movies

While most virtuosos are separated from the general public by the formalities of the concert world, it's impossible to experience Lisitsa as a pianist without experiencing her very appealing, down-to-earth personality. Since her YouTube performances of large works have, by necessity, been broken into segments (YouTube has only very recently lifted its 15-minute time restriction, and then only for certain subscribers), and since she typically appears in blue jeans in the few short interviews she has granted in the medium, the whole Valentina Lisitsa experience conveys an informal old-time home movie quality.

But Lisitsa's use of modern media hasn't been limited solely to YouTube. She has privately produced three DVDs, all available on Amazon. So far I'm only familiar with one of them: a recording she made a few years ago of Chopin's Etudes Op. 10 and Op. 25 in their entirety.

Unlike most classical music DVDs, this is no mere video record of a concert performance. This disc fully exploits the DVD medium: The image and sound are of the highest quality (they are especially well-suited to my iMac) and the cinematography is breathtaking. It's an intimate musical experience; the production's beautifully edited multiple close-up camera angles make you feel you're at a private performance, literally looking over Lisitsa's shoulder.

Why DVDs beat CDs

Personally, I could do with less of Lisitsa's face and more of her hands, but in fact the video content for some of the tracks is devoted to nothing but her fingerwork. And, of course, a DVD offers a richer experience than a mere CD. Beyond the obvious fact that it supplies a picture, with DVD controls you can slow things down as much as you like and, if you're so inclined, observe Lisitsa's technique in super slo-mo.

Almost no one in the world can play all the Chopin Etudes. Lisitsa is among the few who can. Even if she is content to live a quiet life in the Carolina countryside, this DVD (as well as, I am anticipating, the two others I have not yet heard) constitutes a unique recording legacy.

Lisitsa's relative anonymity may be only temporary. Follow this link and scroll down a bit and you'll find that last March Lisitsa undertook a project recording oodles of Rachmaninoff blockbusters with the London Symphony Orchestra. And in YouTube interviews, Lisitsa herself has said that she intends to record all the Beethoven sonatas.

Moreover, Lisitsa has recently signed a contract with Naxos records. Her first recording for that label includes the Appassionata— and Schumann's Kinderszenen, again inviting comparison with Horowitz, who set the gold standard for this elusive work. The woman is nothing if not fearless. (The CD is already out of stock on the Naxos website; it's advertised, but not yet available, on Amazon.)

In Montreal 2008 in Montreal, Lisitsa collaborated with Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto. Perhaps it won't be too long before he invites her to Philadelphia. Let's hope so.♦

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