Lisitsa returns for a hair-raising display of piano fireworks

By David Fleshler

Some musicians play in such a literal style that you can almost see the treble clefs, staffs, sharps and flats before you, as they efficiently deliver each note, precisely as written.

Then there are performers like the exciting Kiev-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa, who appeared in recital Thursday at Florida International University, a rare summer event presented by Friends of Chamber Music. Her playing is so free and spontaneous that it feels almost as if she is composing these works at the piano. Her technique, on display in two of the most formidable works in the repertoire, is stupendous, but her playing never descended to mere showing off.

 A former South Florida resident, Lisitsa was a high-profile presence on the local music scene for a decade as a soloist and duo-piano partner with husband, Alexei Kuznetsoff  The couple now lives in rural North Carolina, where she has established herself as a sought-after chamber and solo performer. The Ukrainian pianist has made several tours as collaborator with the violinist Hilary Hahn.

 In Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, which represents the outer limits of the era’s piano technique, her headlong style made for an exciting first movement, even though she took it at a moderate tempo. But part of the first movement’s power lies in the play between the elements of repose and tempestuous fire, and her rubato-heavy playing steamrolled over the Classical aspects of the piece. In the slow, tragic third movement, however, her passionate style brought poetry and intensity to the long, singing melodies. Her performance of the difficult, fugal last movement was a model of committed musicianship and technical mastery.

Lisitsa has called Rachmaninoff one of her favorite composers, and her affinity with the Russian pianist’s work was clear in her performance of his rarely heard Piano Sonata No. 1. In this work her improvisatory style brought out the work’s shimmering surface and wistful melodies, drawing a huge sonority from the Steinway. As the last movement built to its thunderous climax, her hands were a blur over the keyboard as she played the composer’s fistfuls of notes at high speed.

Piano recitals often begin with a nod to the Baroque or Classical era, something by Bach, Haydn or Mozart. Lisitsa offered her own take on this tradition with the Prelude and Fugue No. 24 by Shostakovich, sonorous and magisterial in the prelude, frenetic in the fugue. After intermission, as a lyric break from the intensity of the big works on the program, she gave an easygoing performance of Schubert’s Impromptu, Op. 142 No. 3.

 After such a workout of a program, any pianist could be forgiven for wanting to take it easy with a melodic bonbon for an encore. Lisitsa took it easy with a keyboard-pounding performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, playing the showpiece’s rapid passages at hair-raising speed.

 Lisitsa will return next season in  a chamber concert for Friends of Chamber Music.

Posted in Performances

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Fri Jul 3, 2009
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