Virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake: Valentina Lisitsa’s Rachmaninov disappoints

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-4; Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini

Valentina Lisitsa; London Symphony Orchestra/ Michael Francis (Decca)

rachmaninov-lisitsa-deccaThe tale of Ukrainian-born Valentina Lisitsa’s unconventional rise to fame through internet clips on Youtube is now relatively well-known. I was present at her 2008 Wigmore Hall debut and her virtuosity cannot be denied. Her growing fame led to a solo recital at the Royal Albert Hall, streamed live on the web, and a contract with Decca. This recording of the complete Rachmaninov piano concertos plus the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini was actually made before either the concert or the contract, funded by Lisitsa herself (vanity publishing is nothing new) and, after sitting in the vaults of DG for some time, they are now released by Decca amid feverish social media publicity.

Warwick Thompson’s booklet note oozes “She thrives on ambition and risk, and the fearlessness of treading a lonely path”. Lisitsa explains how she has based some of her interpretations on recordings made by Rachmaninov. We learn that pianist and conductor didn’t meet before the recording sessions, tempi negotiated online via clips of her performing. Virtue is also made of the fact that Michael Francis hadn’t conducted these concertos before.

Producer Michael Fine has gone on record to praise her interpretations on these discs: “With all due respect to all the other great performers of this music, nobody comes close to this since the composer”. This is a bold statement. The discs have been heavily promoted on the internet, including a gushing five star review on Sinfini, a website created by Universal Music (though it argues editorial independence).

How does one judge a release fairly in the face of such audacious claims? I decided the only way to evaluate them would be through ‘blind listening’. Rather than risk recognising familiar recordings from my shelves, of which Vladimir Ashkenazy and Stephen Hough are most-played, I took the unusual step of purchasing some other recordings new to me so that the ‘blind listening’ exercise would be genuine. I picked up a set by Hungarian Tamás Vásáry, one featuring three different pianists with the Russian Philharmonic under Samuel Friedmann and a trio of releases from the last couple of years which had somehow avoided my clutches: Noriko Ogawa in Nos. 1 and 4, Yuja Wang in No.2 and Denis Matsuev in No.3. Discs were prepared for each concerto, with successive movements played by all four pianists in random order.

Scanning through my notes on each performance, the words scrawled most frequently against the recording ultimately revealed to be Lisitsa’s were ‘impatient’, ‘boisterous’, ‘bullish’ and ‘unyielding’. Perhaps she tries to equate basing her performances on the composer’s own purely in terms of speed, for these are pacy accounts, but they are often too rushed. Hough’s performances are swift, but his mercurial playing never bruises poor Rachmaninov. Each of the four concertos sees Lisitsa setting off quickly – ‘like a greyhound out the traps’ I noted – and although a degree of impetuosity is welcome, her skating through the material frequently sounds insensitive; virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake.

There are points of interest. In the Second, Lisitsa spreads the first chord and then proceeds to break the rest of the chords (bass note, then the rest of the chord) in the next seven bars; Rachmaninov (in his 1929 recording with Stokowski) does something similar, while Ashkenazy (with Haitink) rolls each one. In the final movement of the First, Lisitsa demonstrates quicksilver, percussive technique (from Fig 42, 1’07”) and there is some virtuosic passagework in the final moments of the opening movement of the Third. There is no denying a muscular, big personality at work here, but the effect is bludgeoning. Lisitsa talks about “the grand old Soviet tradition of butchering Rachmaninov” citing men showing off how loud and fast they could play. Oh, the irony.

She is not helped by the bright, clangourous tone at the treble end of the piano, which adds to the hectoring quality of the performance. When she does pause to draw breath, Lisitsa can impress, such as the moderato section of the cadenza in the opening movement of the Third (12’25”), but too often the moments of introspection can sound merely routine. Lisitsa adds an aggressive, unsmiling Paganini Rhapsody.

Michael Francis and the London Symphony Orchestra do their best to keep up. The Adagio sostenuto of the Second has a silky clarinet solo after a quivery flute, but then the piano playing that follows is ever so matter-of-fact, with neither the legato nor the espressivo written in the score. The recording balance favours the piano, meaning some woodwind detail gets obliterated. The pizzicato interplay in the Allegro ma non tanto (Fig 54, 5’47”) of the First’s finale does register well though.

For the record, of my comparative listening, Vásáry emerged triumphant in seven of the twelve concerto movements (a majestic, thrilling account of No.3, while the middle movement of No.1 drew a critical response of ‘Ah, a poet!’ from my pencil. His playing, like Lisitsa’s can be explosive, but it’s passionate and sincere too. Yuri Ahronovitch draws a rich, lush sound from the LSO. Of the three recent releases (although Ogawa was actually recorded over a decade ago!), I especially liked Yuja Wang’s way with the Second – a real sense of momentum and purpose, but with a lovely romantic sweep – and an effervescent Paganini Rhapsody, while Ogawa could sometimes seem a little undemonstrative; a very classical approach. I found much to enjoy in Matsuev’s slow-burning account of the Third until a truly awful crash, bang, wallop finale (including a cut). Of the Arte Nova performances, I particularly enjoyed the big, bold playing of Piotr Dimitriev in No.4 and the distinctive Russian woodwinds.

I have no doubt that these discs will delight Lisitsa’s legion of fans, but Rachmaninov is better served elsewhere. “The terrific results speak for themselves” the booklet note concludes. I beg to differ.

Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-4; Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini; Valentina Lisitsa; London Symphony Orchestra/ Michael Francis (Decca, 478 4890, 2 discs, 2009/2010)
Piano Concertos 1-4:
Tamás Vásáry; London Symphony Orchestra/ Yuri Ahronovitch (DG, 2 discs) 453 136-2 (1975-77)
Concertos + Paganini Rhapsody:
Vladimir Mishtchuk, Andrei Pisarev, Piotr Dimitriev; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/ Samuel Friedmann (Arte Nova, 3 discs) 74321 79760-2 (1996-98)
Piano Concerto No.1, No.4 + Paganini Rhapsody:
Noriko Ogawa; Malmö Symphony Orchestra/ Owain Arwel Hughes (BIS) CD-975 (1998-2001)
Piano Concerto No.2 + Paganini Rhapsody:
Yuja Wang; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/ Claudio Abbado (DG) 477 9308 (2010)
Piano Concerto No.3 + Paganini Rhapsody:
Denis Matsuev; Mariinsky Orchestra/ Valery Gergiev (Mariinsky) MAR0505 (2009)

This review originally appeared in IRR.


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