Lisitsa offers blazing virtuosity and heart at Ravinia

Fri Aug 19, 2011 at 11:21 am

By Wynne Delacoma

Pianist Valentina Lisitsa performed a wide-ranging recital Thursday night at Ravinia.

The last time Valentina Lisitsa performed at Ravinia was in October 1993. Making her Ravinia debut, she was part of a duo-piano team (with husband Alexei Kuznetsoff) on the park’s off-season Rising Stars series. The Ukrainian-born Lisitsa was back at Ravinia on Thursday night, this time in a Liszt-heavy solo recital in Bennett Gordon Hall, part of the festival’s celebrations of Liszt’s 200th birthday year. A powerhouse pianist with soul, her star has definitely risen.

Lisitsa may have been long gone from Ravinia, but with her signature flowing blond hair and exuberant, technically dazzling performance style she became a Chicago favorite elsewhere, a regular guest at the Grant Park Music Festival and other venues.

Thursday’s concert offered a kind of Lisitsa-Liszt immersion. For nearly three hours, with only a 15-minute intermission and virtually no break between pieces, Lisitsa blazed through a demanding program of Liszt, Chopin, Schubert, Mozart and Godowski. She played with flair and thoughtful insight as well as intense delight, racing through Liszt’s most manic, densely ornamented pages with blinding speed and machine-tooled precision. It was the kind of concert that left the audience exhilarated but exhausted. Lisitsa, on the other hand, finally wrapping things up with a serenely dappled Fur Elise for an encore, looked like she could have played all night.

The scheduled program was meaty:  Mozart’s C Minor Fantasy, K. 475; seven Chopin nocturnes; Godowski’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes from Johann Strauss II’s ‘Die Fledermaus’; six Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs; Schubert’s Impromptu in B-flat Major, D. 935, No. 3, and Liszt’s arrangement for solo piano of Totentanz (Danse macabre).  In a free-spirited move, Lisitsa decided to open with an unannounced, extravagantly shaded Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 before launching into an equally dramatic performance of Mozart’s Fantasy.

The highlights were many. Lisitsa is a virtuoso of the first class, seemingly tireless, with fingers and arms of steel. In Liszt’s Totentanz, there was terrifying thunder in her relentlessly pounding octaves. The fearsome sound seemed to emerge from very depths of Hell itself.

But she resists the temptation to simply dazzle with her fancy finger-work. Throughout the evening, especially in the Chopin nocturnes, Lisitsa never indulged in cheap theatrics. Her program was full of pieces with abrupt shifts in mood, but she was careful not to exaggerate those shifts with distorted phrasing or over-the-top emotion.  She trusted each composer to make his own case. One variation in the Schubert Impromptu summoned up a world of unselfconscious child’s play, full of cheerful hesitations and whirlwind flights. In Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Der Doppelganger, we felt the sheer, crushing physical weight of grief. This was playing from the heart, not merely from the fingers.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Lisitsa offers blazing virtuosity and heart at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Aug 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm by John Bergesen, Jr

    Valentina Lisitsa deserved a better audience last night. She was playing very elaborate songs beautifully. At times it left one wondering how she could learn much less memorize pieces she played gracefully.

    The audience however was not so graceful. Before the Schubert pieces: She is making it an intimate setting by talking to us about the Schubert pieces and I hear this man in the balcony who startles Val by yelling to her to speak slower.

    Cell phones are ringing during the performance…Finally the audience(more than one) on her left side starts clapping while I hear someone yelling “Bravo”; before the Totentanz piece was a little over half-way finished.

    I think it finally got to Val. The Totentanz piece sounded garbled at parts. One got the feeling as if she just wanted to get through it and leave. At first I thought it was the piano(Steinway).

    I thought she choose the Fur Elise as an encore to in a sense step back from that piece.

  2. Posted Aug 20, 2011 at 11:53 am by Plush

    The recital was well played and I thought that your review for sure reflected what went on in the auditorium.

    On the other hand her talking was way too long and the recital was way too long. Poor planning on her part in my opinion. She could not recall the names of the pieces she played and there was no insert in the program about them.

    with thanks,

  3. Posted Aug 20, 2011 at 7:59 pm by David Aronson

    The first message said:

    “At times it left one wondering how she could learn much less memorize pieces she played gracefully.”

    We only stayed for the first half (1hr 15 minutes) due to having a 10yr old daughter with us. But while I was listening I was thinking that is sounded like she was making it up as she went along! Because how could she memorize all that?

    So that was exactly right. The playing was that fresh and amazing.

    Sorry for the audience after that.

Leave a Comment