Many piano recitals follow a well-defined theme: a cycle of works by a composer, perhaps, or a prevailing mood. Last night at Kings Place, Lise de la Salle took the other option by choosing music from a variety of composers with no particularly strong connection other than that she loves them all dearly.

Lise de la Salle © Stéphane Gallois
Lise de la Salle
© Stéphane Gallois

De la Salle’s movement is economical, with no histrionics more than the faintest of exaggerated lifts of the right hand before hitting an accented note. If she bends close over the keyboard, her body is flexed from the hip rather than with hunched, rounded shoulders. And her stage persona – straightforward, youthful, enthusiastic and rather self-deprecating – belies the quality of her playing. She started each half of the concert with a short and delightful introduction to the music: her view of the unique qualities of each piece that was to be played in the half, concentrating on those works likely to be less familiar to the audience.

Her most recent recording is of Bach and it was her playing of the Italian Concerto that shone most brightly. The magic of this piece is its combination of bright, Baroque court form with the complexity of harmonic progression that is Bach’s hallmark. It plays to De la Salle’s strengths: super-crisp articulation, perfect evenness of spacing between notes, even when multiple voices are playing fast runs at the same time and exceptionally fine control of dynamics. The weighting given to each note is carefully calculated for the mood she is trying to create, whether it’s the formal energy of the first movement, the soul-balming calm of the second or the jocular good cheer of the third.

Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV43, originally for organ but transcribed for piano by Liszt, reinforced our view of De la Salle’s command of texture and dynamics: the textures here get very thick indeed – extraordinarily so for a piece written so long ago – and she was able to present them with both clarity and excitement. This was truly thrilling pianism.

The most familiar works were the last ones on the programme: Chopin’s Ballades nos. 1 and 4. These are beautiful works and I was as confident of De la Salle’s touch, balance between voices and understanding of mood as I was in the Bach, but I wasn’t persuaded by her use of rubato: perhaps this is a side-effect of my familiarity with other interpretations, but I often found that a rubato was resolved at a time that felt off the mark.

More successful was the Mozart in the first half, most notably a piece that plenty of people know about but which is seldom played in concert, his Variations on Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman! (aka Twinkle, twinkle, little star). These are something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing: the basic tune may be the epitome of simplicity, but Mozart can turn it into anything from a courtly classical dance to an elegiac minor key lament to a Beethovenian rumble. De la Salle did a fine job of accentuating the contrast as well as highlighting the stylistic commonality between them and the three Fauré Barcarolles with which the concert had opened: more pieces where transparency of melody was brought through harmonies far more complex than one might have expected.