Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 1 to 4; Paganini Rhapsody – review

Lisitsa/London SO/Francis
(Decca, two CDs)

Now in her early 40s, Valentina Lisitsa is an unusual pianistic phenomenon, one who could only have invented herself via the social media of the 21st century. Born and trained in the Soviet Union, Lisitsa emigrated to the west in 1991, and after unsuccessfully attempting to establish a career in a piano duo with her husband, she began working as a soloist in 2007. A few years later, she started using Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to showcase her playing, and on the latter site now has more than 50,000 followers.

This latter-day equivalent of vanity publishing has certainly more than paid its way for Lisitsa, whose contract with Decca now gives her the opportunity to make studio recordings of all the Rachmaninov concertos. But the qualities in her playing that have made her performances such a hit on the web – the spectacular technique and the no-holds-barred attacks on whatever she plays – don't necessarily transfer well to audio recordings, and these concertos are about so much more than faux excitement. There's something entirely superficial about Lisitsa's playing that's most obvious in the third concerto, where her reading doesn't come close to exploring any of the work's darker recesses. The great interpreters of this work command attention from the very first phrase; here, that opening seems just commonplace. Under conductor Michael Francis, the London Symphony Orchestra seems efficient but utterly disengaged.

If the first concerto just about gets by on sheer energy, but comes up with nothing that's fresh or special, the others fall short even of that. The CD catalogue already offers outstanding versions of all five works: Ashkenazy on Decca in the First and the Paganini Rhapsody, Sviatoslav Richter (Deutsche Grammophon) in the Second, Argerich (Phillips) or Horowitz (RCA) in the Third, Michelangeli (EMI) in the Fourth. Anyone who wants all four concertos and the rhapsody in a single box won't go far wrong with either Ashkenazy's set or Stephen Hough's on Hyperion. Lisitsa's performances can't be mentioned in the same breath as any of these.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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