Lise de la Salle delivers engrossing recital under difficult circumstances

Mon Apr 11, 2011 at 12:16 pm

By Michael Cameron

Pianist Lise de la Salle performed works of Liszt and Schumann Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall.

At the outset there was reason for mild discomfort as 23-year-old French pianist Lise de la Salle began her area recital debut Sunday afternoon at Mandel Hall at the University of Chicago. Without air conditioning the unseasonable temperature spike made for a sticky afternoon, a fact that seemed not to bother the pianist a bit but caused notable discomfort for the Steinway grand, a malady that continued unabated after intermission since a tuner was nowhere to be seen. The hall was barely a third full, and patrons seemed reluctant at first to warm up to the newcomer.

Though there were a few minor missteps in execution and judgment in this ambitious program of Liszt and Schumann, she delivered an utterly engrossing recital, and by the final bars a grateful audience was in her grasp.

The first half offered five sharply contrasting but dauntingly formidable works by Franz Liszt, including a fearless account of the Transcendental Etude No. 4 in D minor (Mazeppa). She summoned a deep, powerfully resonant sound for the extended grand climaxes, and the blistering octaves were precise as large gestures, but not so micromanaged that the ear was overcome by a mere athletic display. Rubato was not excessive as a rule, but she spun certain key melodic episodes with supple elasticity.

Après une lecture de Dante: Fantaisie quasi Sonate is one of the toughest nuts to crack in the Liszt canon, its undeniable force often compromised by campy bombast and melodrama. In her hands the endless struggles seemed plausible to a degree that may only be possible in the hands of unjaded youth, the rare smudged passage notwithstanding.

Nuages Gris was the one “simple” Liszt work on the program, but its bizarre harmonic twists are a maze that few pianists can negotiate as fluidly as de la Salle. Sadly, thin textures also reveal tuning imperfections as surely as an MRI, and one could only sympathize with the plight of the pianist as sour pitches were allowed to resonate.

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes is a large-scale masterwork that poses hurdles few pianists can entirely overcome in a live performance, and is often accompanied by more mishaps than Liszt’s most severe tests (the composer himself advised Clara Schumann to avoid public performances).

It seemed that the pianist might set aside the oft-analyzed psychoses of Schumann in favor of a clear-eyed view of his classical models. The theme and first two variations were dispatched expressively but neatly, though the third variation included a few minor misfires amidst the gripping drama.

As the work progressed Schumann’s alter egos Eusebius and Florestan exerted a greater pull. Some variations were driven by heady impulsiveness, others by a disturbing sense of foreboding. Only in the final variation did the pianist embrace a strange bit of rhythmic distortion that seemed gratuitous. Better the odd questionable choice in this work than a literal regurgitation of the printed page.

I can’t imagine a more appropriate encore under the circumstances than the sixth prelude from Debussy’s first book, Des pas sur la neige (Footprints in the snow). Her cool, subtle shadings in the composer’s continuous reharmonizations of the haunting tune were wondrous.

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