Top Ear

Lisitsa’s Chopin and Schumann Etudes

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Leonard Ip writes [translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee]

Lisitsa’s path to success is so well-known that if you Google “the Youtube pianist”, the first page of search results will all show links with the name “Valentina Lisitsa”. In this new solo album, Valentina revisits the two sets of Chopin Etudes that catalyzed her rise to fame on Youtube, as well as taking on Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Personally I was very interested to know how popular this album would be, despite the not-particularly-extraordinary results.

Music-lovers who have watched Lisitsa’s Youtube videos even for a short while will have known that Lisitsa often uses her technique to sell herself, and the pieces that she chooses are all highly virtuostic (Chopin, Liszt, etc.)—this is without question her strong point, and her dazzling, precise yet relaxed technique is also evident in this album of Etudes. Yet, if you think about it, isn’t technique an asset that modern pianists should already possess? Of course there is such thing as good and bad technique (and Lisitsa’s technique is of course extremely good), but then the basic career requirement of modern pianists is the same. Given this, what other special points does Lisitsa possess?

At the very least, Lisitsa’s habit of always being relaxed is a rather special point. Her performances are of course highly virtuosic, but whenever the music calls for some tension and weight of tone, she almost always uses a very relaxed way to ease the music out; for example, she diminuendos away from the highest point of the phrase in the first variation of the Schumann (0:08), and tries to sculpt a streamlined phrase by smoothing out the edges of her tone in the theme of the Winter Wind etude (Chopin’s Op. 25 No. 11), thereby compromising fury for elegance; same goes for the Revolutionary etude, whose left-hand semiquavers are played with the utmost fluidity and smoothness—instead of a tempest that we normally experience, we are given some ripples on a pond. This feeling of “ease” is the biggest characteristic of Lisitsa’s playing; you won’t find a single ugly or surprising note coming from her hands, and all her interpretations are fairly straightforward. This means that Chopin’s 24 etudes are glided over with the utmost ease, while Schumann’s epically structured Symphonic Etudes are not so much an epic arc from tragedy to victory as a smooth and safe 20-minute-long commute.

Is this precisely why Lisitsa is so famous nowadays? I do not know. Lisitsa is undoubtedly a gifted pianist, and this set of Chopin etudes, if used as a clinic on technique, would be a very apt resource (in contrast to, say, Cortot’s). Lisitsa’s overall performance is even more distinctive than Lisiecki’s (DG) release a year ago. I see no major problems with her taste, and so it’s unsurprising that she has so many admirers. But is it also because this era favors exactly such a mode of “easiness”?

Details

  • Album name:  Chopin;  Schumann:  Etudes
  • Performers:  Valentina Lisitsa (piano)
  • Label:  Decca 478 7697
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:25:13
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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