Valentina Lisitsa again arrived in Portland on short notice to rescue a concert series. Last September, Lisitsa replaced an ailing Horacio Gutierrez in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in the Oregon Symphony season opener. This time, the Ukrainian-born, Miami-based artist filled in for the young phenom Rachel Cheung, whose parents apparently didn’t want to jump through all of the hoops required in order to get their daughter an artist’s visa.
Lisitsa’s appearance was the second concert in a series sponsored by Portland Piano International, and her performance on Monday evening at the Newmark Theatre didn’t disappoint those who love the Romantic repertoire. Lisitsa opened the program with a gripping interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s “Études-Tableaux,” Op. 39, No 6, in A minor. Her fingers flew up and down the keyboard in every imaginable direction, and she made the virtuosic passages look effortless. Her style was nearly the same as she shows in her youtube video, so you can see for yourself.
More Rachmaninoff followed. From his 13 Preludes, Op. 32, we heard the No. 12 in G-sharp minor, No. 5 in G major, and No 10 in B minor. Lisitsa gave each prelude its own flavor. With No. 12, she created a dreamy, impressionistic mood that drifted with the clouds. No. 5 continued in the same manner but ended magically. No. 10 had a somber and thoughtful attitude that seemed to hint at a Russian hymn.
Lisitsa rounded out the Rachmaninoff set with the Prelude No. 5 in G minor from his 10 Preludes, Op. 23. I think that Lisitsa could have slowed down a bit during the middle section. She seemed to hurry it along a bit too much. Still, by the end of the piece, she won everyone over to her interpretation, which was rich and melodic.
The first half of the program ended with Beethoven’s Sonata in F min, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”). I loved Lisitsa’s opening statement in the first movement, because she varied the dynamics and tempi very well. She continued to show a fine understanding of nuances in the second movement, but her playing of the third movement started out somewhat rushed. Somehow she relaxed the pace enough to gather us into the whirlwind that marked the end of this piece. Wild applause from the audience erupted from all over the hall.
The second half of the program began with Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (“Scenes of Childhood”), Op. 15. Lisitsa brought each scene to us lovingly and with complete understanding of every nuance. Her performance was impeccable, full of wonderful feeling, and went straight to the heart. I cannot image a better interpretation.
Next, Lisitsa played Thalberg’s Fantasy on “The Barber of Seville,” Op 63. This piece was garnished with so much ornamentation that I could barely make out a few of the melodies from Rossini’s famous opera. After reading the program notes, I found out that that was the point. Lisitsa made this piece look a lot easier than it is, yet I wish that Thalberg had brought some of Rossini’s themes to the forefront.
The final piece on the printed program was Liszt’s “Totentaz” (“Dance of Death”). Lisitsa had this virtuosic piece nailed – from the demonstrative beginning to the final burnout at the end. Lisitsa exhibited remarkable control, and the numerous glissandi looked brutal, but she played it all with gusto.
After a thunderous ovation by the audience, Lisitsa returned to the piano, a huge Bösendorfer grand, to play five encores. She didn’t announce them from the stage, but all of them were tough pieces and the last one was a Liszt knucklecruncher. Lisitsa played each one impeccably and with great feeling. With each piece she seemed to become more and more energized, and I think that she might have continued playing until midnight, but, alas, the audience was ready to go home.