With more than 30 million YouTube channel views, there is simply no doubt that Valentina Lisitsa is already a classical music star to contend with. Not content with being any ordinary internet superstar, in the run-up to her Royal Albert Hall debut, the Ukrainian pianist uploaded videos of her practice sessions, announced her intention to stream the concert across the globe, and even went so far as to allow the audience to pick the programme via the internet.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t sceptical about the whole thing being a little bit gimmicky. I suspected that the programme would be full of showpiece favourites, but while the programme was indeed smattered with a few concert-hall classics, Lisitsa actually reminded us why these pieces are indeed famous, without once stooping to meaningless technical fireworks.
Before the playing even began, Lisitsa endeared herself to the audience with a heartfelt welcome, raising a smile by suggesting the first piece could be ‘thrown under the bus’ for the benefit of latecomers and press photos. However, the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no. 12grabbed the audience’s attention from the off, sparkling with a polished yet rustic vibrancy, everything perfectly placed under her fingers. Next was the Mozart Fantasy in C minor, K475, probably the weakest item on the programme – not for musical or technical reasons (it was virtually flawless) but merely because for such a staggering virtuosic and musical talent, it seemed too small a vehicle to completely showcase her skills. To follow, she played Liszt’s transcriptions of three Schubert songs. Lisitsa’s approach was more Lisztian than Schubertian, but always in good taste and with careful regard to the stories behind the pieces. The transcriptions were as expressive as the original sung versions despite the technical difficulties – most pianists would balk at having to play the accompaniment part forErlkönig, let alone the vocal part as well, but the different voices of the characters came across clearly even without words, and the mysterious elven king was both enticing and terrifying. Finally, Lisitsa finished the half with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The Adagio was taken at a somewhat faster pace than normal (a little too fast even by 19th-century standards), but suitability aside, it was refreshing to feel the piece move as opposed to the sugary languorous dragging to which some pianists subject the movement. The Allegretto was delightful – Lisitsa even smiled as she began to play, and her enjoyment was infectious. The Presto agitato bubbled along with contained agitation, and swept the first half to a close, followed by rapturous applause that demanded two bows.
The second half was an indulgent feast of Romantic repertoire, with a mixture of Rachmaninov Preludes, Scriabin Poèmes and Etudes, Chopin Nocturnes and, to finish, Liszt’sTotentanz. The Rachmaninov pieces were rich and warm in tone, any technical slips made up for by the baffling strength of character in the playing. The Scriabin Etudes were vividly descriptive, the ‘Mosquito’ truly earning its nickname as the trills buzzed delicately under Lisitsa’s fingers; the Chopin Nocturnes sang with an intimacy as if she were playing in a hall a quarter of the size. The final piece, the Totentanz, was thrilling and astonishingly quick, hands scaling the keyboard at a speed that actually blurred on the projector screens.
After such an astounding display, Lisitsa then proceeded to delight the audience once more with two encores, the Liszt-Schubert transcription of Ave Maria, and to finish, her famed interpretation of La Campanella (which the audience began to clap on hearing the initial notes sounding), fingers playing repeated notes at an eye-watering speed but always with feeling and thought. She was afforded not one but three standing ovations (after the programme and each of the encores respectively), and deservedly so.
If I had judged the evening on first appearances, given among other things a somewhat ‘popular’ programme and a kaleidoscope of stage lights that would put a Pride parade to shame, I probably would have dismissed the event as vacuous cheese and not given it a chance. But from the first note to the last, Lisitsa’s playing shone through all the gimmicks and the special effects as something truly extraordinary. She proved herself to genuinely be a remarkable artist who successfully bridges the gap between the niche in which classical music all too often resides and the modern world without ever compromising on quality. Both a virtuoso and a true musician, her playing absolutely captivated the audience as indeed did she as a person, and personally speaking, I think any musician who can battle their way successfully through such a virtuosic programme and still make a joke to the audience about football scores at the end of the evening deserves a great deal of success.