Elissò Virsaladze’s all Liszt Recital at the Pontino Festival

Liszt : Elissò Virsaladze (piano), Fossanova Abbey, Italy, 3.7. 2011 (JB)

The UK’s latest cookery wunderkind, twenty-six year old Stevie Parle, brought a smile to my lips recently. In an excellent recipe for wholegrain Irish Soda Bread, he instructs his readers to sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, make a well in the centre into which the wet ingredients are poured, and then, using one hand as a claw, incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet. And here comes my smile: mix quickly and confidently, he says. Of course, he knows that I first have to find the speed and confidence within myself before I can apply them to the task. When I found myself being successful on these two scores, I burst out laughing. Stevie is right though. If you dither at this stage, there is a risk of ending up with a heavy, nasty dough.

It is all too easy for Liszt to come out as heavy, nasty dough. Not so with Eilssò Virsaladze. Speed and confidence were blatantly in evidence in the first notes of the B flat lament, the first of the three Concert Studies. She was not so much clawing the notes together as savouring every note of the grain at the speed of light as her fingers came into contact with it. And as always, what a rich grain of sounds Liszt gives us in these studies.

Was there ever a pianist with such independence of fingers as Madame Virsaladze? The lyricism of the second contrasts beautifully with the poised, wispy mischief of the third. But these styles are not confined to single movements. There are cross-overs. Singing and dancing take place simultaneously under Virsaladze fingers. She is a one-man band. At the same time, everything she does is purely and delightfully pianistic.

An in-depth biography of Liszt’s life could well be written round the various constructs in which the composer passionately involved himself. One of these was Italy – not the Italy of the guide books but an Italy which the composer made entirely his own, a country in which he was the leading citizen. When he set three Petrarcian sonnets as songs, Liszt is more in evidence than Petrarch. The case is even more so when the songs are arranged for piano alone. Virsaladze played the piece which began from the base of sonnet 104: Pace non trovo, e non ho da far guerra, e temo, e spero, e bruccio, e son di ghiaccio…[ I find no peace, I have no means of going to war; I fear, I hope, I burn and I am frozen.] Liszt, you will not be surprised to know, found immediate empathy in this kind of soulful turmoil. One feels his genuine gratitude for Petrarch’s wit. In the Liszt piano piece, of wit there is nothing; the gratitude is paramount. And so it was in Virsaladze’s rendering.

Something similar happens in Sposalizio – Liszt’s homage to Raffaello’s painting of the Wedding of the Virgin. Liszt was doubtless impressed by Raffaello’s amazing mastery of perspective in this late canvas as well as the realism which the painter conveys through a unique portrayal of formal and intimate (informal). So far, so clear. This is what most viewers see and feel in Raffaello. But Liszt makes it all his own. And he does this through his own pianism. Two unique concepts meet here. And Elissò Virsaladze is ideal when it comes to delivering unique and sometimes conflicting musical dialogue going on at the same time.

When Liszt was received into the Church at the end of his life, it delighted him to be informed that he was also an exorcist. He had spent his life in battle with Mephistopheles. Now he could lay to rest the demon! Mephistopheles is largely an aberration of German construct. To clearly grasp the demonic nature of the character, just listen to any of the recordings of Chaliapin singing the ‘Calf of Gold’ aria in Gounod’s Faust.

When it comes to the piano, I thought I would never hear a more convincing performance of Liszt’s construct than John Ogden’s. Readers may remember that Ogden won joint first with Ashkenazy at the 1962 Tchaikovsky Competition, so no second prize, but the third went to Eilssò Virsaladze. And yet, last night at the Abbey of Fossanova, Virsaladze was a clear winner. More steely, more uncompromising, more chilling than Ogden. And those are all qualities I have admired in him. But Virsaladze managed to be positively menacing in her delivery. She was playing the first penning of the Mephisto Valse. And here Liszt is celebrating the sheer exuberance of evil’s perpetrator. He never had a finer interpreter: steely, uncompromising and always vivace.

A glorious romp through the Spanish Rhapsody brought the printed programme to a close. Two generous and beautifully poised encores of Liszt transcriptions sent us homeward with the composer ringing in our ears: Schumann’s Widmung in which Liszt is uncharacteristically democratic in his filtering of Schumann’s moving song (he actually places Schumann centre stage!) and in contrast, Schubert’s Soirée de Vienne.

Jack Buckley