To say that Valentina Lisitsa has had an unconventional career as a pianist is to understate the case. By the time she sold out the Albert Hall in June 2012, she had made scarcely any solo CDs, certainly none on a major label, and developed her audience almost entirely via the relatively recent medium of Youtube. Nonetheless, her many posted videos had attracted a barely plausible fifty million hits. This kind of attention puts her in popstar-land. More extraordinary still, her playing is breathtaking, of a level of accomplishment that few in the world could match. Not for nothing did Hilary Hahn choose her as pianist for her Charles Ives Violin Sonatas CD on DG.
Having filled the Albert Hall (audience about 6,000) it was inevitable that she sign with a major—Decca, it transpired—and that the whole unique affair be released on disc: annoyingly, the resulting CD and DVD do not provide exactly the same repertoire, one has to obtain the pair to be able to own both her Scriabin Études op 65 and Liszt’s un Sospiro. The choice of pieces itself Lisitsa left to her legions of fans—they were apparently invited to vote for their repertoire favourites, which explains the anomalous presence of the Moonlight Sonata and Für Elise in this program of otherwise knuckle-cracking virtuosity. Catering to all ages, one might say. Fortunately, her signature piece, la Campanella, finds its way onto both versions of the concert. It is quite clear, watching this unassuming pianist demonstrate the sort of technique a Sofronitsky would envy, that her Youtube years, when she posted all her pianistic outings both good and adequate, have inculcated in her an amazing fearlessness and confidence; she simply seems unfazed by the hazards and (very) occasional blemish. This is epitomised by her heart-breaking, if eccentric, rendition of the Schubert/Liszt Erlkönig, the kind of piece most pianists would be relieved not to have to play in public: the playing is characterised by subtle and mercurial tempo changes that suggest a very deep engagement with the unheard poetic text. The excitement this marriage of vertiginous skill and hypersensitivity generates in the vaultlike Albert Hall is rare indeed.
Lisitsa plays a magnificent Bösendorfer Imperial the better to fill this vast space, and despite the huge challenges posed by the venue, she manages to maintain an impressive subtlety and richness of tone. As a record of a preposterously fine recital this CD/DVD pair will take a great deal of beating. It will be fascinating to see where Lisitsa’s career trajectory takes her next.