I originally discovered Valentina Lisitsa when I came across her Chopin Etudes DVD on Youtube. To start with, I didn't like her all that much. I appreciated that she was an excellent pianist with formidable technique, but her style wasn't to my taste. It was only once I realised how she was revolutionising classical music through the use of social media that my respect for her really took off.
Gradually I began to realise what she was doing was very different: she talked about the music when she did a recital,
tweeted to people in the audience, and was prepared to livestream her
practise and performances to the whole world. Last but not least, whereas most pianists achieve fame by winning prestigious competitions at a tender
age, Lisitsa's career took off via the internet when she was
middle-aged, without the aid of any competitions (and the agents and record companies they entail) whatsoever.
The Royal Albert Hall recital was what finally made me a fan. I'd listened to Ashkenazy's Rach preludes CD, but his intepretation, while excellent, had never really communicated the essence of the music to me in the way Lisitsa's did. I felt like I was hearing the preludes for the first time. It was then that I decided to learn Op. 32 No. 10, and my obssession with Rachmaninov began.
Some time later I joined with hundreds of other pianists and music lovers around the world to watch Lisitsa livestreaming her 12 hours of practise a day, and later a performance of Rach 3. It was an amazing experience, not least because of the wonderful live chat board, where I was able to talk with fellow pianists around the world and discuss what Lisitsa was playing in real-time.
Last weekend, I flew to Brisbane for a couple of nights and saw Valentina Lisitsa perform at the Queensland Performing Arts centre. It was unforgettable, and a very different experience to other piano recitals I've been to. Lisitsa talked at length about the music, the composers, her own childhood and the reasons for her programming (which was refreshingly unconventional) before sitting down to play, straight through, 6 Rachmaninov preludes, followed by Prokofiev's 7th sonata (a personal favorite of mine) and then the Beethoven Appassionata. And that was just before interval. She didn't want applause between pieces, but couldn't prevent a few outbursts from the enthusiastic audience.
From the very first piece, I disliked the piano. Lisitsa favours Bosendorfers, and it's a pity she wasn't able to play on one, because the Steinway in the auditorium was poorly tuned (not out of tune exactly; just poorly tuned), unevenly voiced and jangly. However, Lisitsa was able to make it sound beautiful, especially as she warmed up.
Hearing her play the Rachmaninov preludes again since I'd gotten to know them better, I realised I didn't actually like her interpretation of Op. 32 no. 10, the prelude I learned. Some of the more technically challenging preludes were also a bit messy, but when a performer sees the bigger picture rather than focussing on the details, mistakes are unimportant, and Lisitsa certainly saw the bigger picture. In fact the Rach preludes were really just a warm-up, and the fact that Lisitsa was able to play 6 such challenging works to open a recital is indicative of her pianistic skill.
The Prokofiev sonata and Beethoven which followed were flawless - and very fast, something which seems to be Lisitsa's trademark. After interval, she spoke some more and then played 8 Chopin nocturnes. This time the audience managed to not applaud between pieces. Again, the bigger picture was of the utmost importance. I was particularly impressed with how Lisitsa had programmed the nocturnes according to key; she had obviously put a lot of thought into the order of the works, rather than simply arranging them chronologically (as most pianists do). It's practically unheard of to put a Op. 55 before an Op. 15.
The final piece on the program was Liszt's Totentanz. There are several recordings of Lisitsa playing this on Youtube, but I swear she played it better in this recital than I've heard in any of her recordings (in fact, I would say that about everything she played). It was interesting to hear Totentanz again since I wrote my own variation on Dies Irae - I know the plainchant melody so well now that I hear it everywhere, and this familiarity meant that Totentanz made a lot more sense to me than it had before; I suddenly heard it as a piece of music and not merely as a way for the pianist to show off.
There followed a well-deserved standing ovation and two encores. The first was Liszt's transcription of Schubert's Ave Maria, which was very beautiful. Amazingly, Lisitsa then played La Campanella - a piece I would hardly have considered appopriate encore material after such an exhausting program! But Lisitsa's stamina is unfailing and this, too, was stunning. I couldn't help comparing the ending with Gavrilov's, which I think someone on Youtube once tried to call the 'fastest La Campanella' or something like that. Gavrilov fakes it, and in the last few bars is basically just playing random notes as fast and loud as possible (don't get me wrong, I do actually like Gavrilov - just not his La Campanella.)
In any case, Lisitsa did NOT fake it. I would even go so far as to say her accuracy was 99.9 percent (I heard no mistakes, but I have to leave a .01 percent margin to cover the possibility - after all, there are a lot of notes....)
The thing that impressed me most about Lisitsa's performance was her incredible stamina. Even some of the best pianists tend to hold back when they have a big climax to reach in a piece, or if they know they have to play something very technically demanding later. Lisitsa never held back once - she kept playing with the same intensity, showing no signs of fatigue, and maintaining an incredible volume. The secret to this is complete relaxation: you can tell just by watching Lisitsa play that she is very, very relaxed. Of course, physical strength is also necessary, but strength is completely useless without relaxation, and that isn't as easy as it sounds. In fact, the inability to keep my arms and wrists sufficiently relaxed is probably the thing that holds back my technique the most.
I think a lot of young pianists (including myself) could benefit from taking a leaf out of Valentina Lisitsa's book by viewing a piece of music, and the challenges it entails, as a whole and thinking about the overall impression rather than worrying about every mistake; and RELAXING and letting their entire weight sink into the piano. Relaxation doesn't just improve stamina: it also results in a beautiful rich tone, something that is distinctly lacking in most of the pianists I hear in competitions.