The first lunchtime concert of the Wigmore Hall’s autumn season featured young French pianist Lise de la Salle. With her 'glamour model' looks, Lise de la Salle could easily be dismissed as a “piano babe”, but at only 23, she is already making a name for herself, particularly through her recording of first concertos of Liszt, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Slightly built, her long blonde hair secured with a slide, she brought passion, poetry and panache to a neatly contrived programme focussing on “narratives” within music, with works composed by musical friends, and towering piano geniuses of the 19th century, Chopin and Liszt.

Lise de la Salle © Stephane Gallois for Vanity Fair
Lise de la Salle
© Stephane Gallois for Vanity Fair

Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. Despite sharing the same title, each Ballade is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds.

Lise chose to highlight the shifting storylines within each Ballade: a languid yet supple opening theme in Ballade no. 1, its tempo slower than many pianists choose to play it, allowing us to savour the melancholy, long-spun melodic line, before a more lyrical, happier second subject. The iconic theme, when heard a second time, was glorious and florid, with fine accentuation of the left hand part, which is often overlooked, and which added some interesting textural contrasts. In the Second, she gave us songful lyricism in the gentle opening motif before a 'con fuoco' section which felt like the pianistic equivalent of the arrival of Hurricane Irene. The contrast between the two motifs was carefully delineated, so much so that it felt at times as one was standing between two rooms, shouting from one room, singing from the other.

In Ballade no. 3, the passion is more restrained. A lilting opening melody with its “ticking clock” motif, which suggests a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him - and us - poignantly, of the passing of time, is transformed into the portentous tolling of a dead bell before a brilliant climax. Once again, we were able to relish Lise’s control, from restrained elegance and fragility to full-blown passionate intensity and power. In all four Ballades, there was colourful shading and phrasing, carefully nuanced dynamics, subtle pedalling, and moments of thoughtful introspection through well-judged pauses and silences. Her 'fiorituras' (flowery operatic embellishments of which Chopin was very fond) felt entirely improvisatory, emphasising the unfolding narrative of these pieces.

Liszt’s powerful and virtuosic Dante Sonata is not a piano sonata at all, but rather a 'fantasia', and its full title Après une lecture de Dante reminds us that this is programme music, inspired by Dante’s epic ‘The Divine Comedy’. The piece is the last of the suite of the Italian year of the 'Annees de pèlerinage', and, like the three Petrarch Sonnets that precede it, does not take its cue directly from the text. Rather, it reflects Liszt’s own response to the poem in the same way as earlier pieces in the Italian Années, ‘Spozalizio’ and ‘Il penseroso’, convey the composer’s response to a painting and a sculpture by Raphael and Michelangelo respectively.

Lise brought an affecting approach to the work, evoking the soul’s descent into hell in fiery cascades of sound and terrible rumblings in the bass, precipitous double octaves, a contrasting hymn of joy, and ecstatic and ethereal showers of sound high in the treble. Her absolute control, as well as her vision, were evident throughout the piece: this was Liszt-playing to revel in, exciting, climactic, perceptive and heroic.

For an encore, Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung, a ravishing love song, which combined soaring songlines, expressive warmth and an intense delivery, all distinct features of the entire performance.