The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Ear gets more than an earful of Franz Liszt and Valentina Lisitsa, and thinks of Liberace. | August 20, 2011


By Jacob Stockinger

I came away from the mammoth piano recital given by Valentina Lisitsa – the so-called “Mystery Pianist” — on Wednesday night at Farley’s House of Pianos with two convictions:

1. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa (below) deserves a much bigger solo career than she currently enjoys.

2. It is possible to hear much too much of piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt, whose birth bicentennial is being celebrated this year. (Oct. 22 is the official date.) But because of the bicentennial, that is exactly what we are going to hear in live concerts and in recordings.

Lisitsa, who had just returned from dates in Brazil and who was on her way to perform the same “Liszt to Lisitsa” program at Chicago’s summer Ravinia Festival the following night, played for almost three hours without breaking a sweating.

The woman has chops to spare along with incredible strength and stamina. I doubt there is any configuration of notes that she can’t play, and play convincingly and very hard for a very long time.

Blessed with astounding technique, she tends toward the bangy repertoire and show-off stuff as well as towards a bangy or pounding approach that puts her squarely in the same Romantic tradition as Liszt himself and even Vladimir Horowitz in his wilder moments. Not for nothing did she throw in Leopold Godowsky’s totally trashy “Symphonic Metamorphoses on ‘Die Fledermaus,” which has no musical value I can discern.

In short, Valentina Lisitsa can twirl a concert grand on her pinkie, so we should be hearing much more of her as a soloist.

That said, I found this particular concert of hers more impressive than satisfying on several levels.

It boils down to wanting more subtlety in both the music and the performance.

When Lisitsa performed Mozart’s “Fantasy in C Minor,” K. 475, she used silence and pauses to create an operatic drama very effectively. Part of the seven Chopin Nocturnes were also beautifully phrased and sung; but every once in a while, when the notes got thicker, she got more Liszt-like in her Chopin, more loud and flashy, more erratic in tempi.

The same was true of an overall lovely reading of Schubert’s theme-and-variations Impromptu in B-flat, Op. 142, No. 3. One wants to hear more softness and subtlety, of which is clearly capable and which Liszt did indeed write into some of his best music.

With the concluding solo piano version of Liszt’s “Todentanz” (The Dance of Death) we were back to the wow’em kind of Liszt – and Lisista really did wow the sold-out audience into a standing ovation.

But for me, the most revealing moments – positive and negative — came in Liszt’s transcriptions of songs by Schubert (below).

I know others disagree, but I don’t consider Liszt such a great composer. He is a very good one, to be sure. But too much of what he writes is glitz and schmaltz to camouflage up a relative poverty of content.

Those songs represent the best of Liszt – the deeper Liszt who championed contemporary composers including Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Wagner. (His later work and harmonies also represent Liszt as a pre-modernistic pioneer.)

But the song transcriptions also highlight the worst of Liszt, his tendency to overscore works for the piano, on which he was such a devilish acrobat and transcendental technical magician. Each repeat of a song stanza seem to bring forth another trick from his bag full of tricks: This time double octaves, another time double-thirds, another time sweeping glissandi and arpeggios. It was like highbrow Liberace. After a while, you see all the tricks in the bag and repeating them gets just plain predictable, boring and off-putting.

It was enough to give you a headache. I’ll take Chopin’s B Minor Sonata over Liszt’s B Minor Sonata 100 times out of 100 times.

Lisitsa was also rude to the audience by adding four unprogrammed and unfamiliar pieces of Liszt – “I love Liszt … I’m going to torture you with Liszt,” she tellingly said – and then not announcing their titles. (Best I can tell, they included the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, the Ballade No. 2 in B Minor and an arrangement of “Ave Maria.”)

But in a way, not announcing the titles was just the right touch.

Because a lot of Liszt does indeed sound the same, especially when played as she did, and you really don’t need to know more except that you about to be dazzled by finger-twisting virtuosity and an occasional catchy tune.

True, Liszt (below) composed many much more subtle pieces that Lisitsa might have programmed for variety — his lovely Petrarch sonnets, the Consolations, other works from the “Years of Pilgrimage.” I also like his Piano Concerto No. 2, some of his late piano works and some of his orchestral tone poems.

But overall, Liszt wrote too many notes and too little music.

How I would like to hear Lisitsa play a more meaningful, more nuanced solo repertoire! I have heard her live and in a new recording accompanying Hilary Hahn in Charles Ives’ violin sonatas. She was and is stupendous, even deeply musical. But I think she needs more of that same kind of music to play – and a better and wiser booking agent to set up the right dates and the right programs. Wednesday night saw some beautiful moments of fine playing by her. I just wanted to hear more of that from Lisitsa.

Of course, other will disagree and have. See, for example, this review from her Chicago appearance with the same program:

In the mean time I will confess: I wish I could play Liszt like Lisitsa does.

Except that then I wouldn’t play Liszt, but instead the harder works of better composers.

I don’t want to play Liszt. I just want be able to play like Liszt.

Posted in Classical music


  1. “After a while, you see all the tricks in the bag and repeating them gets just plain predictable, boring and off-putting.

    It was enough to give you a headache. I’ll take Chopin’s B Minor Sonata over Liszt’s B Minor Sonata 100 times out of 100 times.”

    Don’t you go a bit far here? Liszt’s B minor is one of the greatest pieces of the piano literature (even though you may prefer the Chopin). It certainly is not boring or off-putting.

    Comment by Andreas — August 22, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

    • Hi Andreas,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      Your are right. Liszt’s B Minor Sonata is not boring and predictable and i call it one of Liszt’s greatest works — though I still don’t think it is a match for the Chopin B Minor Sonata.
      I was referring to the repetitious tricks of Liszt’s song transcriptions.
      They really do become tedious if you hear too many of them at once.
      Also some of his etudes and Hungarian Rhapsodies.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 22, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

  2. Jake, so this concert happened afterall? I thought it was cancelled.

    Comment by Carol Ricker — August 21, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    • Hi Carol,
      It was indeed canceled.
      Then Farley’s called to say it was on again, so I removed the cancellation and left up the post saying it would take place.
      Sorry for any confusion, but there was a lot of it surrounding the concert.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 21, 2011 @ 6:13 am

  3. Jacob,

    Would it be possible for you to e-mail me the “Ear’s” edition with the incredible female Chinese pianist in the photo wearing the red mini-dress? I’m afraid I’ve deleted it & wanted to forward it to my soul-mate, a world class female kybd artist. Also, do you know when the First Unitarian Society will again offer their terrific Fri. luncheon recitals? Thanks for any help you can provide. And congratulations on the “Ear’s” 2d anniversary. I read every issue from start to finish. It’s a terrific service and provides some really challenging thoughts on serious music. Until moving to Middleton, I never knew Dane county was such a cultural treasure. Take care.

    Larry Retzack

    Comment by Larry Retzack — August 20, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    • Hi Larry,
      Will do so gladly.
      But all you (or your friend) would have to do is go to the site and plug “Yuja Wang” into the search engine, find the right post, click on it and then copy and paste the URL in the e-mail. That should do it.
      Thanks for sharing it.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 20, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

  4. How I wish you were still writing for the papers. What passes for “music review” in this town these days — the exception, perhaps, being the inimitable John Barker — is pathetic. Thank you for an honest and thoughtful REVIEW of Ms. Lisitsa’s program.

    p.s. what did she wear? (kidding…)

    Comment by Kathy Otterson — August 20, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    • Hi Kathy,
      Thanks for sending along such kind words and encouragement.
      I too am sorry not to be in the newsroom, well at least at certain times.
      But as you know, it was more circumstances than choice that made me leave.
      Nonetheless, I’m just glad I still have some kind of forum to offer you and others my views, for whatever they are worth.
      Thanks for being a fan.
      Continued good reading and listening to you.
      And let me add that I share your admiration of John. W Barker, who often writes for this blog as a guest reviewer.
      I will also defend the critics in the papers who really are doing their best with such an understaffed staff. They just have to do too much in too little time.
      I’ll end by adding that the arts in general are not getting the coverage they deserve, especially for a city as rich in the arts as Madison is.
      But I think that is probably true everywhere during these times.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 20, 2011 @ 9:17 am

  5. Yes, though Liszt was both a composer and a showman (some would say rock star)…too often the composer played servant to the showman. He was capable of tremendous feats of piano virtuosity…so he wrote music to show that off. And, (to my ear, anyway) like some other composers, (John Rutter comes to mind) he sometimes just cranked out music for an audience. And sometimes wrote music that reminds us he was capable of the sublime.

    Comment by Cheryl Dring — August 20, 2011 @ 7:51 am

    • Hi Cheryl,
      I find your assessment of Liszt quite just and accurate, and I share it.
      The really great Liszt is just too rare.
      More often, you hear his devotion to the more More Is More Esthetic that wants notes, more notes.
      You have to wonder: Sometimes when things come too easily, it works against you and against quality. Struggle is often an integral part of creation.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 20, 2011 @ 9:11 am

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