The Conductor Steals the Show from the Pianist

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Prokofiev, de Falla, Rimsky-Korsakov Valentina Lisitsa (piano); London Symphony Orchestra/Xian Zhang (conductor). Barbican Hall, 18.1.2015 (CC)

Verdi                           La Forza del destino – Overture
Prokofiev                    Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
de Falla                       Three Dances from The Three Cornered Hat (Suite No. 2)
Rimsky-Korsakov       Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34

It is a sign of the times, perhaps, that pianist Valentina Lisitsa is primarily known via the sharing website YouTube. Ukraine-born but now resident in the States, she has also made a variety of recordings. Much of her recording fare is of virtuoso stock: such as Rachmaninov or the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies. Here, she took on Prokofiev’s fearsome Second Concerto, with decidedly mixed results.

Accuracy was a problem (a quick listen to a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody on YouTube confirms this was not an isolated incidence). Lisitsa’s sound is far from huge, making it a struggle for her to be heard at times. The first movement cadenza – Prokofiev’s virtuosity at its height – held some impressive moments but also suffered from Lisitsa’s by-now trademark splashiness: there is an uncontrolled element to her playing that is most disconcerting. There was no doubting her fluency of finger in the Scherzo, but the Intermezzo found her rather matter-of-fact, losing vital energy in the process. It was a shame, as the orchestral contribution was unfailingly wonderful. The ear was, in fact, constantly drawn away from the soloist by the LSO’s sure feel for Prokofiev (all those Gergiev performances clearly paid off). Xian Zhang was an exemplary accompanist, but there was no opportunity for this to be either a partnership or a soloist/tutti adversarial duel. Listisa’s fans were vocal at the close, but blissfully drew forth no encore.

 Xian Zhang is currently music director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. Her way with Verdi was suitably dramatic. The Forza Overture was shot through with dynamism. The opening fanfares certainly caught the attention and thereafter the smell of the grease-paint was near palpable. Well-shaped, intelligent but above all true to the spirit of the piece, this was a remarkable performance.

 The two pieces in the second half, one Spanish and one decidedly Spanish-influenced (if served with a touch of a Russian accent) made for an early end to the concert. Still, there was a lot of infectious fun to be had in that short time. The Three Dances from de Falla’s Three Cornered Hat (The Neighbours Dance; The Miller’s Dance; Final Dance) made a glorious showpiece for the LSO. Perfectly balanced textures bore testament to the sensitivity of Zhang’s ear, and there was a terrific sense of atmosphere to the initial “The Neighbours”, a Seguidilla. Good for principal horn Timothy Jones for going for the almost-but-not-quite raucous effect for the opening solo of “The Miller’s Dance”; good for the entire ensemble for projecting such unalloyed joy in the final number. To close we heard Rimsky’s splendid Capriccio espagnol, an abandoned, bright and jolly display of the very first order. The piece is a splendid romp, and it was clear the orchestra enjoyed themselves as much as the audience.



Colin Clarke