It seemed a kind of ominous presence, the grand piano alone on the empty stage in Lucerne, softly lit, and facing an audience of about some 900 people. Lise de la Salle would perform momentarily, but for a split second, I was reminded of a small self-portrait by Rembrandt I once admired in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where a huge canvas in the foreground stands facing the painter, tiny by comparison, who stands in the background contemplating what approach he should take. The canvas − both an isolated presence and the artist’s vital tool for expression − represented the daunting task of artistic interpretation, and it stood alone in a soft light, just as the piano stood here on the Lucerne stage.

Lise de la Salle © Marco Borggreve | Naïve
Lise de la Salle
© Marco Borggreve | Naïve

At 27 years old, the French pianist Lisa de la Salle has already performed in many of the major concerts halls in Europe, the United States and the Far East. From 2013 until earlier this year, she was artist-in-residence with the Philharmonia Zürich. No stranger to the Lucerne festival either, she debuted here in 2011 and performed again to great acclaim in 2013. When she walked onto the stage to tackle her instrument here at KKL − shyly, it seemed, and looking very small − her walk in striking stiletto heels betrayed her belonging to a younger generation. Her interaction with the audience was a little too modest and unassuming, but not so her playing. She had chosen wisely to frame her solo program with two pieces by Johannes Brahms, and fill the interim with music by Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. With Brahms, she could underscore the science of tightly constructed composition; with the French Impressionist composers, she would ‘paint’ the evening with a magic that showed her extraordinary technical ability.

Brahms’ familiar Variations in D minor, op. 18b is an 1860 piano adaptation that his “beloved friend” Clara Schumann requested after hearing and admiring his first string sextet. The piece shows a rigid adherence to a fairly simple theme through all six of its variations, as well as indebtedness to the Baroque masters. In this acoustically excellent hall, the pianist was able to bring rich and multifaceted sonorities to the fore, driving turbulence in the third variation, and tinkling through the ghost-like, otherworldly coda. At the end of every segment, she held her strong, bare arms poised above the keys at an angle to her body that served as a kind of punctuation mark.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit portrays three literary paradigms: a mermaid, the corpse of a man still hanging from the gallows, and an energetic sprite. The underwater effects of Ondine were played with the lightest possible touch, elsewhere, convincingly conjuring up the ripples of breeze on the water. In Le Gibet, always against the single note of the ‘death knell’, she gave us the nervous buzzing of insects, and chords descending in such complex clusters as to sound something like those of Karl Heinz Stockhausen. And her extraordinary Scarbo saw her hands covering the terrifically difficult score at a warp speed that almost brought up the God of the Forge from the bowels of the earth.

I liked the Debussy Préludes that followed even more, however; seven (of the 24) in the artist’s own selected order. “The sounds and the scents turn in the evening air”, based on a poem by Charles Baudelaire, seemed to come almost effortlessly, the pianist perched on the edge of her stool, her posture perfectly upright. “The girl with the flaxen hair” was much more sustained, and gave some of the romance of the great Western film scores, including its four-note, remarkably tender ending. In “What the West wind has seen”, the pianist released unbridled energy on the keys, but also in a slap of the air with her left hand behind her. Turbulent, indeed: in this instance, my neighbour quipped, she was hard enough on the keys as to suggest she’d forgotten they were her friends.

She finished with Brahms' Variations and Fugue in B major over a theme by Handel. There were march-like beginnings, to whose downbeats the pianist bobbed her head, and a regimented order that emerges a strong presence throughout. But the piece is also a showcase for variations in fingering that range from the delicate – even childlike – to the most forceful. Lise de la Salle showed herself an artist, as one critic bestowed, of “transcendent agility, staggering energy” in no small part because of the exuberant fugue that intensifies the excitement of the final few minutes. Her control of pauses, the effective alterations in volume, and her mature resolution of complex repertoire made that citation suitable for her work here in Lucerne.