The pianist Valentina Lisitsa has not taken a straightforward path to success. She’s been playing and performing for years, but her career seemed to be tanking until she, on a whim, posted some videos to the Internet in 2007 and attracted, over time, more than 56 million viewers. She’s been appearing in the Washington area for a long time (including a few performances with the violinist Hilary Hahn), but only in the past few years, now that she’s in her 40s, is she hitting the big time. And when she was finally booked for a solo recital at the Library of Congress this fall, the government shut down, so she had to reschedule for a later date. That date finally arrived, Friday night. She was more than ready.
Lisitsa is a growing star with a big-label recording contract and concert dates with the big orchestras and in the big recital halls of the world. So it’s striking that her playing is relatively straightforward. Let me backtrack — “straightforward” is an inadequate term for virtuosity. Lisitsa is a big, big player. She opened Friday’s concert with a set of Rachmaninoff and showed herself more than equal to the music of that virtuosic composer, setting the piano aquiver, then and throughout the evening, with big pounding chords that left the strings trembling and humming in her wake. And she is also a delicate, sensitive, fluid player who can ripple gently over the keys with the unctuous smoothness of oil. The whole evening — which flowed from Rachmaninoff preludes to Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult B-flat sonata (the seventh), a set of Chopin nocturnes to Liszt’s “Totentanz” — was poised between these two extremes.
Nonetheless, I aver that she is straightforward. She does not tart the music up. She does not seek to create a persona, much less impose one on what she is playing. She offers readings that are, when you penetrate through the satin curtains of the soft playing and the thunder of the loud playing, fundamentally honest and direct. You feel you’re getting a strong performer but also a sense of what the piece is like rather than of how Lisitsa plays it. There’s no explaining the mysterious alchemy of a viral YouTube video, but I wonder if this directness — a sense that you’re learning about the piece as well as the performer — has contributed to her success.
I was impressed, sometimes dazzled and sometimes even taken aback by the ferocity of her fortissimos. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone bang quite that hard. On the other hand, it’s a legitimate response to the twisted maniac whirl of, say, “Totentanz.” It was also mitigated by her ability to differentiate clearly, to shift moods between the Rachmaninoff preludes from limpid (in the G from Op. 32) to driven (in the G-sharp minor from the same set) and to set up clear rhetorical breaks in her presentation so that, while she played through all the Rachmaninoff and straight into the Prokofiev without a pause, you were never uncertain as to exactly where you were.
And then, of course, there was a big block of Chopin nocturnes as a kind of balm, equally differentiated and no less compelling. One of Lisitsa’s most distinctive interpretive features is her rhetorical approach: The music was offered in big, long stretches of sound, like part of an ongoing discussion, picking up the threads of something that was going on, and will continue, in her head. I didn’t always find the individual interpretations as compelling as I did the aggregate, the way that one statement built on or reflected off another, so that each nocturne presented a different facet of ur-nocturne-ness. To be able to present a piece as tough as the Prokofiev with any kind of conversational feeling is a considerable feat.
For someone with such a showy side to her technique, and so much popular attention, and blond hair and good looks to boot, Lisitsa has a kind of businesslike mien. She doesn’t pull the diva card. Her four encores — starting with two Liszt arrangements of Schubert songs, “Ave Maria” and “Erlkönig” — were presented as matter-of-factly as the rest of her program. Perhaps it’s the fact that she doesn’t define herself exclusively as a performer that makes her stand out. In any case, she’s not a cookie-cutter star, and she gave a substantial, and exciting, concert.