Every so often an artist comes along who completely throws out the rule book and is brave enough to approach a musical career on their own terms. Yesterday I witnessed one such artist: Valentina Lisitsa. I have already blogged about Valentina, marvelling at the way she has managed her career on her own by successfully employing social media. This has allowed her to speak directly to her fans via her own YouTube channel – on which she has famously had more than 44 million hits. Up until now Valentina has been a YouTube sensation – she hasn’t really been given the opportunity to prove if she really can produce the goods under the scrutiny of a sophisticated London audience.
All that changed this week at the Royal Albert Hall. Lisitsa performed for over two hours to all her fans worldwide because the concert was streamed live on YouTube and it was also recorded as a DVD and CD too. Both will be released very soon.
The programme consisted of Lisitsa favourites; Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Scriabin as well as Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. An eclectic mix which her many fans helped her to select.
From the start, I was aware that this was to be no ordinary recital; Valentina strolled onto the stage with a microphone in hand and proceeded to chat to her audience for a good ten minutes, speaking of her meteoric rise and the journey she has been on to get to this point. She thanked her fans for their support. On sitting down to play the gleaming Bȍsendorfer which had been carefully angled for maximum audience viewing, huge rolling cameras began to move surreptitiously around the stage. There were also two giant screens erected high above Lisitsa. I enjoyed the coloured lighting onstage which changed throughout the concert depending on the mood of the piece – pure theatre!
The first work was to be considered the ‘Overture’ she told us. This was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 which she romped through with total confidence and aplomb, tossing aside the fiendishly difficult passagework allowing beautifully phrased melodic material to captivate and caress the audience. Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor K.475 was a revelation; Valentina’s tonal palate was immense yet even in the huge RAH, every last note was audible.
Three Schubert-Liszt songs followed and were possibly the highlight of the recital. Des Mädchens Klage and Der Doppelgänger serve as perfect illustrations as to why Lisitsa has achieved worldwide respect; they were performed with utter conviction and real lyricism. Erlkȍnig was played with such beauty and tonal colour. I felt complete fear and anguish at the little boy’s plight in this song such was the depth of Valentina’s communication. It was an incredibly moving performance of this virtuoso arrangement.
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in C sharp minor (Op.27, No. 2) closed the first half. Listsa’s gave this work an almost improvisatory character which was particularly successful in the outer movements. Many layers of sound pervaded the famous first movement, the second was given a dance-like feel and the majestic third movement was played with such clarity and taken at breathtaking speed.
Rachmaninov opened the second half; Etude-Tableau Op.39, No 6, which was stylishly delivered combining mystery and excitement. The group of Preludes which followed showed Lisitsa at her most flexible and lucid. The lyrical G major (Op.32, No.5) was played with complete abandon; so secure is Valentina’s technique that she can focus on conveying every last musical nuance. The G sharp minor (Op 32, No.12) was given the utmost tonal variety (although some of the lush harmonic progressions could have been savoured a little more for my taste) and the B minor (Op 32, No. 10) was also effective. The G minor (Op. 23, No. 5) – a trade mark on her YouTube channel – was taken at break neck speed but the middle section was rhythmically free and the melodic material so convincingly phrased and coloured.
Scriabin’s Two Poemes (Op. 32) were full of intensity and passion as were his Two Etudes (Op. 42 No. 3 and Op. 65 No.1). I particularly the enjoyed Op. 42 No.3, nicknamed ‘Mosquito’, and in Lisitsa’s hands, it certainly sounded like one!
Three Chopin Nocturnes were yet another highlight of the evening. The C minor Op 48, No. 1, was allowed to unfold naturally, the climax of cascading octaves rippling down the piano came as a welcome relief to the concentrated anguish of the first and indeed the last section. Nocturnes in D flat major (Op 27 No.2) and in E flat major (Op 9 No. 2) were moving to the last breath such was the depth and clarity in Lisitsa’s melodic lines.
The programme ended with Liszt’s devastatingly powerful work, Totentanz S.525. This wonderful death-dance using the Gregorian plainchant, Dies Irae, was given majesty and grandeur bringing the whole Lisitsa experience to a fittingly virtuosic close. Valentina was then treated to a complete standing ovation which lasted several minutes. Schubert’s Ave-Maria was encore number one and the moving melody was swiftly distributed between the hands so effortlessly. Encore number two was Liszt’s La Campanella, another Lisitsa trade mark. After a false start (thanks to the audience’s vociferous comments) Valentina again demonstrated complete musical and technical prowess. Throughout this recital she has shown total individuality and commitment which is the quality I most admire in her playing.
Lisitsa has silenced her critics. Perhaps more importantly, she has illustrated that it is possible to come from no-where and rise to heady levels of success without winning first prize in an international competition or the need for agents, publicists and all those who often seek to destroy artist’s rather than help establish them. I hope this is the start of a long and illustrious career – she certainly deserves it.