With one week’s notice, Horacio Gutiérrez was indisposed and cancelled his much-anticipated piano recital at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. In his place, it was Valentina Lisitsa to the rescue, the sensational pianist who has now had over 50 million views on her YouTube channel, giving her the status of a rock star. Lisitsa is also one of few to have her solo recital streamed live from the Royal Albert Hall. In Canada, the Ukrainian pianist had already left her mark in March 2011, when she graced the concert platform of Koerner Hall in a chamber recital with Hilary Hahn. A large audience left that concert impressed with what they heard in Lisitsa, and hoped she could return for a solo performance. That wish came true Sunday afternoon, when she brought a towering program ranging from Bach to Prokofiev.

Valentina Lisitsa © Gilbert Francois
Valentina Lisitsa
© Gilbert Francois

For pianists, the arrangements by Ferruccio Busoni of Bach’s chorale preludes have transformed these gems, giving them entirely new dimensions on the modern piano. In a nutshell, Busoni challenged conventional wisdom in our understanding of the acoustic possibilities of the piano, while matching Bach’s authentic vision in these chorale preludes. “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ” is the fifth of ten choral preludes that inspired Busoni; here, he added both color and fantasy while adhering to strict principles of harmonic and contrapuntal writing. Lisitsa played this prelude with a beautiful, round sound on her Bösendorfer piano, breaking off in moments of dense polyphony.

In a continuous breath, the ending of the prelude paved the way into the dark and mysterious opening of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. In some ways similar to the approach of Sviatoslav Richter to this piece, Lisitsa was not holding back, so as to keep herself immune from less polished playing like slips or missed notes. Rather, she was risk-taking, founding her highly individualistic reading on a broad sweep of tempo and articulation. The last movement demonstrated Lisitsa in perpetual motion, shaping a sound that grew in emotional intensity. Visually, she became conscientious of her technical execution, conquering Beethoven’s difficult writing, such as the fast notes in the uppermost treble register. There was impeccable focus and confidence in her playing, different from that serious and reverential playing of the Appassionata that some would revere in the playing of Wilhelm Backhaus or Hans Richter-Haaser. Lisitsa developed an understanding in Beethoven’s language that was characteristically her own.

From Beethoven, it seemed only natural the next pieces were those of Schubert: a set of Lieder arranged by Liszt. These pieces are warhorses for Lisitsa, as apparently she first performed them publicly two decades ago. They included the rarely-heard piano arrangement of “Gute Nacht” from Schubert’s cycle Winterreise; “Des Mädchens Klage”, based on a poem by Friedrich Schiller; the ever popular “Erlkönig” and “Ave Maria” transcriptions; and “Der Doppelgänger”, one of Schubert’s last songs from the cycle “Schwanengesang”. Lisitsa’s use of the Bösendorfer grand was an intelligent choice to bring out a wide palette of colours, and her tackling of the embellishments over the main melodic line was rendered most effectively. Most outstanding of all was her interpretation of “Erlkönig”, where Lisitsa’s clean octaves and coordinated pedal work synchronized almost perfectly to deliver the drama behind Goethe’s poem. “Ave Maria” ended the first half of the concert in serenity and nostalgia.

Following intermission, Lisista chose a selection of eight Chopin Nocturnes to illustrate her aptness in light-weighted playing, together with an almost choreographic shaping in phrasing and its intermittent silence. She achieved this through using unusually slow tempi. At various times, she seemed to be lingering and fixated on a musical idea, meaning that it took her over 40 minutes to complete the eight pieces. That being said, Lisitsa produced sweet episodes of lyricism, recalling Chopin’s love for bel canto singing. Similarly, she exerted some of the stormiest episodes, such as the middle section of her first Nocturne (Op. 55, no. 1). Her meticulous work in charting bar after bar of nostalgic beauty was irrefutable, although her choice of rubato and her artistic license may not have been everyone’s taste. Importantly, her research on these Nocturnes was not limited merely to interpretation: she had selected the specific edition that fitted with her playing style. For example, Lisitsa presented the alternative, “second” version of the E flat major Nocturne (Op. 9, no. 2), with octave enhancements belonging entirely to Chopin which can be found in the latest Urtext edition of this piece. Closing the recital was a most hot-tempered and exciting reading of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 7, whose raw energy would have been sufficient to power the electricity of an entire neighborhood. A Sunday afternoon to remember.

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