The Artistry of Valentina Lisitsa Overcomes the ‘Beast from the East’

06/03/2018

Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov: Valentina Lisitsa (piano), Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra / Valery Polyansky (conductor), The Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 4.3.2018 (GT)

Tchaikovsky – The Sleeping Beauty Suite; Symphony No.4 in F major

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.3

This was an extraordinary concert, partly because it took place at all, for all other concerts were cancelled owing to the ‘Beast from the East’ storm which engulfed Scotland, but most significantly to the artistry of the soloist Valentina Lisitsa.

This orchestra first appeared in Edinburgh as the ‘New Symphony Orchestra’ in the mid-eighties under their music director Gennady Rozhdestvensky, they later became known as the Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra and made a huge number of recordings of Glazunov, Bruckner, Shostakovich, and Tchaikovsky. Notably they were first to record all Schnittke’s symphonies. Since 1992 they have been known under their present name. On this wintry afternoon, they began with The Sleeping Beauty suite which comprises five excerpts from the longest ballet Tchaikovsky wrote and was oddly in reverse order, but of course the purpose is to offer a presentable arrangement of attractive pieces whilst showing off how well the musicians can play.

On this hearing, the musicians seemed tired, the brass were out of tune, and the string ensemble was not in synch with each other, notable however was the wonderful solo on the harp by Tatiana Emelianova.

The huge almost capacity audience was mostly here to see and hear Valentina Lisitsa who has achieved a tremendous following world-wide and has become such a phenomenon. Lisitsa’s career has been a difficult one for she pursued the conventional one of winning competitions in the Ukraine and in the US but following the death of her American agent she quickly found her concerts drying up, however she, and her family put their own life savings into making videos which they put on YouTube and thus created her own exclusive audience and now millions can listen to her. The hiring of the Royal Albert Hall and her own self publicity on the net brought her a capacity audience since which her career has blossomed beyond legend.

In this, the most challenging of Rachmaninov’s concertos, Lisitsa’s hands seemed to fly across the keyboard, her fingers moving as if by some magic, she is attentive in listening to the orchestra, picking up the playing of the bassoon, and the oboe and following their music making. She plays almost effortlessly yet with great sensitivity, particularly in the canonic-like section where both hands overlap each other, and making the orchestra listen to her too. Lisitsa played the two cadenzas with enormous sensitivity and power, adopting for the ossia, more complex cadenza and something the composer himself found too demanding! The Ukrainian pianist evinced all the grace and romance of the concerto with both power and ease, quite astonishing to watch. In the intermezzo, we heard some beautiful clarinet playing from Dmitry Volkov, and from the bassoon of Ilya Kashtan! She plays as if her life depends on her performance, she puts everything into it. It’s a long time since such an almost hypnotic effect on an audience, thrilling playing and celebratory, so full of life! Her playing is so clear! No rushed notes, brilliantly executed and crystal clear, and played with incredible power! At the close, a rare sight here was the hundreds who gave her a standing ovation.

In the Tchaikovsky symphony, the orchestra found their best selves once more, and provided plenty of passion and romanticism especially in the thrilling opening with the orchestra on top form, the brass department was superb in the great theme of fate, picked up by the strings, and woodwind and the characterisation of the famous waltz was beautiful, and the return of the fate theme by the wind provided a fine closure to the movement! Polyansky has a style of conducting like his teacher Rozhdestvensky, open and demonstrative, and able to get the best from his musicians. In the following Andante sostenuto, the oboe of Vladislav Vrublevski was heart stopping in the beauty of his playing, bringing out the colour of the folk melody brilliantly. The flute of Daria Piankova was mellifluous as was the bassoon of Ilya Kashtan whose baleful playing was wholly apt. In the famous Scherzo, the pizzicato playing by the strings sections was marvellous to watch as much as to hear, here we could hear too the bloom of the strings against the woodwind. In the finale, the loudness of the opening chords understated the quality of this orchestra in playing at pace and all with a fine grasp of the dynamics, the wonderful folk theme ‘In the field stood a Birch Tree’ were announced in the full force of romanticism. A fine close to a quite astonishing concert.

Gregor Tassie

For an interview with Valentina Lisitsa click here.

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