Friday, July 3, 2009

Music review: Lisitsa impressive in big-sonata Boca recital

Valentina Lisitsa.

By Greg Stepanich

BOCA RATON -- "Did Beethoven write that just to drive pianists crazy?" a man in the audience asked Valentina Lisitsa on Wednesday night just after the pianist had finished taking her listeners through Beethoven's momentous Hammerklavier Sonata.

"He was crazy," a woman in the audience said in reply, and in truth the 29th piano sonata of Beethoven (in B-flat, Op. 106) is music of the mind that disdains performing niceties, much as do the composer's final string quartets. But Lisitsa, a Kiev-born pianist who lived in South Florida for years, made the most of its quirks and dramatic shocks, and if some of her recital was somewhat more haphazard than it could have been, she demonstrated in full measure the strengths -- large technique, huge sound, ferocity of attack -- for which she has become a local keyboard celebrity.

Also on Lisitsa's program Wednesday night at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Boca Raton was another gigantic work, the Sonata No. 1 (in D minor, Op. 28) of Sergei Rachmaninov, which is much less demanding intellectually than the Beethoven but perhaps even more monstrously difficult to play, and very exciting to hear if managed successfully. Lisitsa brought to both of the big sonatas the same basic approach of tempest and turmoil, in which the loudest climaxes were truly immense, and the colors drawn with a feverish intensity.

Lisitsa has an exceptional technical facility and an ability to raise great torrents of sound that must come quite naturally to her. While she moves her tall torso around very expressively as she plays, she never seems to be working hard; you could look in vain for any sign of the hunched-shoulder position typical of pianists trying to be forceful or expressive. Everything she does at the keyboard comes out of the considerable power she is able to summon from her shoulders down to her fingers, so much so that even these two enormous pieces seemed to give her very little trouble or much cause for sweat.

That said, the two sonatas were missing some variety, more so in the Beethoven than the Rachmaninov. This was a powerful, impressive Hammerklavier, but it didn't have enough contrast to fully present the range of textures in the work, in which orchestral bigness shares space with introspective fugue, and sudden wrong-note outbursts stand in stark relief against operatic-style aria. That aria, the moody third movement, came off best in Lisitsa's hands, as she skillfully, beautifully, let Beethoven's long line spin out unruffled, and made no attempt to rush it along before it had spoken its grief-filled piece.

The second movement, on the other hand, had the same driven, hammered reading as the first, and what that scherzo needs is impishness and wit, not more force. There was a rushed quality to the opening bars of the work, in which Lisitsa seemed determined to seize the attention of the audience by slamming through the first couple minutes with the same general volume and speed, which does violence to Beethoven's dramatic intent and obscures the multiplicity of contrasting styles already apparent in those opening pages.

Her fingerwork was admirably clear throughout the bizarre fugue of the finale, but again there was a hardness to her playing that tended to wipe away the shading built into the writing so that the effect was one of monumental noise rather than titanic counterpoint.

The Rachmaninov sonata, which dates from the period of his Third Concerto (in the same key), doesn't have the melodic distinction of that work, and instead its two outer movements have a great deal of moody, pregnant noodling waiting for a big tune that never comes. It's harder, in other words, to make this less-than-stellar piece work, but Lisitsa made as good a case for it as she could. She had no trouble with Rachmaninov's fearsome technical demands, and her fiery, passionate reading of the music suited it excellently.

Yet there were moments when more contrast, especially with a greater dynamic range, would have helped give the music more shape. She ended the first movement, which after acres of angry D minor unfolds quietly into a peaceful D major, with mastery and poetry. It would have been wonderful to have the same sensitivity brought to the softer Moderato chord passages that stand like lonely towers against the clangorous battlefield that is the rest of the third movement, but these critical reflective bars sounded pushed.

The Rachmaninov isn't very good music overall; its themes are too weak and much of its content is oddly static, but in sheer heft and bravado it can make a strong impression, and it did with Lisitsa. The Beethoven is a much more substantial piece, and while there Lisitsa stressed its flash and volume (except for the third movement), she at least has the equipment to bring that part of the sonata to life.

Lisitsa also played two shorter works: the final prelude and fugue (in D minor) from Dmitri Shostakovich's Op. 87 set, and the much-loved Impromptu in B-flat, (D. 935, or Op. 142, No. 3), of Franz Schubert.

The Shostakovich, the opening work on the recital, has a somber prelude and a fugue with an insistent second subject that builds to a pounding conclusion. Lisitsa gave an effective reading of the piece, making much of the darkness and light of the prelude, but playing the fugue too fast, which made it sound more random and less structured than it in fact is.

Perhaps the best playing of the night aside from the Adagio of the Hammerklavier came with the Schubert, in which Lisitsa played with taste and exceptional restraint, keeping her left hand well in the background and spinning off the later variations of the theme with perfect crispness in the right hand. Each of the variations was distinct and expertly judged, charming individually and surpassingly elegant in sum.

For an encore before her small but very enthusiastic audience, Lisitsa did what any self-respecting bravura pianist would do and offered not a petit morceau -- a Chopin waltz, say, or a Rachmaninov etude -- but instead another showoff piece: the Second Hungarian Rhapsody of Liszt.

This most famous piece of Gypsy kitsch fits Lisitsa's great gifts well, with its high flash content and digital dazzle, and its bold, forthright melodies. She tossed off the whole thing with style, and offered a nice humorous touch by playing the upbeat to the well-known friska section with large pauses between the notes, a sure sign of her confidence that her hearers are with her every step of the way.

The next concert at the Steinway Gallery features cellist Claudio Jaffe and pianist Yang Shen in music by Schubert (the Arpeggione sonata), Schumann, Popper and Dvorak. The recital is set for 5 p.m. Sunday, July 19, at the gallery on Federal Highway in Boca Raton. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. For more information, call 561-929-6633 or visit

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