The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Bummer!!! The recent recital by YouTube sensation Valentina Lisitsa proved tedious and showed that great pianists aren’t always great musicians. | November 24, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Valentina Lisitsa (below), the Ukraine-born pianist who has become a YouTube sensation, played a recital here last Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. It featured music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Valentina Lisitsa

All four men were accomplished pianists as well as composers.

So you would have thought that nothing could go wrong.

But it did.

Big time.

From the time she took the stage, Valentina Lisitsa seemed ill-at-ease and unsure of what to do musically. What resulted was a very long concert with too much boredom and tedium.

Her default position seemed to be to play a lot, and then play some more. It turned out to be more like a marathon or a 19th-century “monster concert” than a typical piano recital. I don’t know what the intent of her program was except perhaps to show off her undeniable stamina.

Valentina LIsitsa playing

True, the “new media” phenom, who has a clear gift for self-promotion and who attracts avid groupie-like fans to her many YouTube videos and concerts, played for the better part of three hours and never seemed to break a sweat, even in the most difficult pieces.

But I have to concur with The Wise Piano Teacher who said: “It was the worst piano recital I’ve heard in my life, and I’ve heard a lot of them. I came home angry.”

The teacher wasn’t alone.

Except for a few of the miniature intermezzi by Brahms and a few of the ingenious etudes by Schumann, the piano playing seemed disjointed and the music too often lacked musicality.

Now, my instinct is to be generous and to make allowances. Maybe it was just an “off” night. Or maybe she felt ill or sick. Or maybe she has been overbooked or underrehearsed in recent weeks.

I do know that I have heard Lisitsa play much better, though she seemed at her best when she accompanied the gifted American violinist Hilary Hahn (below), who perhaps gave her some interpretive direction.


The Ear kept thinking of the response by Vladimir Horowitz (below) when somebody asked him why he didn’t take the second repeats in sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti or why he didn’t play late sonatas by Beethoven. “I don’t want to bore the audience,” he said.

Vladimir Horowitz

Lisitsa showed no such concern for the audience. In fact her program, her stage manner and her playing all seemed listener-unfriendly. At times, her recital even seemed condescending and disdainful of the ordinary listener.

Valentina Lisitsa at keyboard 2

As a critic, I have to call it as I hear it. But I take no joy in writing this. There are few enough solo piano recitals in Madison these days, and I had really looked forward to this one. Rarely do I want to walk out of a concert of any sort, especially a piano concert. But this time I did want to walk out -– and I did leave early, during a Franz Liszt encore that was his arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” I also saw some other serious music fans walk out even earlier.

As for the all-Romantic program itself, here are some snapshots or mini-critiques:

The “Tempest” Sonata by Beethoven (below): This great sonata was frequently reduced from a tempest to directionless wind by dropped or missed notes and choppy interpretation as well as by inattention to dynamics. It just didn’t make sense intellectually or emotionally -– and it is a great masterpiece of emotional depth. And certainly her playing of the same work in a live concert in Paris in a YouTube video at the bottom is better than what I heard live here. 

Beethoven big

The “Symphonic Etudes” by Robert Schumann (below top): Decca has just released an 85-minute recording (below bottom) of Lisitsa playing these pieces plus the complete Chopin etudes. She seems drawn to etudes, perhaps because they often favor fingers over music. And this woman has fingers and technique to spare, even if she lacks musical ideas. imagination and something to say.

Schumann photo1850

Valentina Lisitsa Chopin Schumann etudes CD cover

Selected Intermezzi by Johannes Brahms (below): She didn’t stick to the program, and didn’t announce the changes to the audience. She played 14, but after a while they all ran together and it seemed more like 114. Better she should have played a set of just three or four intermezzi as a quiet interlude –- which was their original intended purpose. But instead she too often rushed through them. We missed the poignant melodies and harmonies, the autumnal soulfulness of late Brahms, to say nothing of the careful construction and counterpoint he used.


Sonata No. 1 in D Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff (below): The Ear thinks Lisitsa knew she has confused and lost her small audience when she went from the long Brahms set directly into the Rachmaninoff sonata. I heard some audience members wonder about what they were hearing – where Brahms had stopped and Rachmaninoff had begun. This sonata is a hard piece to hold together, and it didn’t help that she favored big noise over music, big chords over subtle voices.


All in all, and despite a standing ovation — for her strength and brilliance, one suspects — The Ear found it a night to forget. I have heard Valentina Lisitsa (below) in better form and I wish I knew what happened here.

“Was she annoyed that the house wasn’t full?” someone asked. Maybe, although such an attitude would be highly unprofessional and too peevish or diva-like.

But I do know that when she next appears in a solo recital, I will think twice -– more than twice -– about attending.

That is too bad for me and too bad for her, too bad for the audience and too bad for the presenter.


But everyone’s a critic.

What did others of you who attended Valentina Lisitsa’s recital think?

Did you judge it a success or a failure?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. So glad that I didn’t make the drive from Milwaukee.

    Comment by Daniel Petry — November 24, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

  2. Hi, Jake! Sorry to hear about this. It did bring to mind, though, the one time I heard her live a couple of years ago, at that strange “Mystery Pianist” event at Farley’s Piano. There, too, she had provided a recital over three hours in length, dominated by at least four major Liszt works. Placing this in context, this for her served as a dress rehearsal of sorts for a Liszt marathon event in Chicago, held the following evening — but it’s just too long an evening. Also, I was very much turned off by a comment that she made in her post-concert remarks — something to the effect that she “had to” play some of these works on a “toy” piano, which was actually a refurbished late 19th century instrument that is Farley’s stock in trade. Personally, I would agree that it was a piano that did not comfortably withstand the intense demands of “Totentanz” — but, then, why play the piece? She clearly has a breadth of repertoire that would have allowed her to tailor her program to meet the limitations of the piano, rather than bringing it up as an “issue”. Left a sour taste in my mouth, at any rate — and so I guess I’m not surprised that she elected here as well for what is just simply bad programming — too much, and too heavy.

    Having said that, though, let’s give her her deserved due for being a pioneer in presenting Classical music in YouTube format and in unusual venues. She has carved out for herself a unique path, and for that I think she should be given appropriate credit. But, in the very top rank? — naaahh!

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — November 24, 2014 @ 11:18 am

  3. I heard her previously at the Union and was looking forward to this concert.
    I agree. with everything you wrote-boring, too long etc. I was a guest and had it not been for that I would have bolted like the woman next to me. I started to focus on the bad seaming of her dress just to stay awake. Bad sign.
    I wonder if the WI Union folks were aware of just how poorly the program was planned when she submitted it to them as part of the contract?

    Comment by Lynn Gilchrist — November 24, 2014 @ 10:16 am

  4. Hi, Jake,

    Glad we have you in Madison. Well, I am amazed that so many people went to hear the pianist Valentina Lisitsa on Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater. When it comes to my taste, I never liked her playing. I myself do not like this modern, loud, bravura playing, which so many young artists display these days. It almost boils down to who can play louder and faster.
    Instead I went on Saturday to hear the SDG Ensemble in an incredibly superb concert. It has such high-class playing with an unsually interesting and seldom heard program. It was fantastic.

    Comment by Irmgard Bittar — November 24, 2014 @ 9:30 am

  5. I couldn’t agree more with you, Jake!

    Throughout the entire evening I was on edge anxiously waiting and craving for at least ‘some’ depth and breathing between all those notes coming down like a banging waterfall! Right from the first bar in the Beethoven I was extremely disturbed by the way she handled the arpeggio, and so on. Did she have the soft pedal down all through the Brahms?

    ankie foell

    Comment by Wesley Foell — November 24, 2014 @ 8:52 am

  6. Hi Jake –
    I agree with Paul, above – you are an astute and articulate critic and should never sell yourself short!

    Though I didn’t hear the recital, your review puts me in mind of the debacle that was the appearance of Awadagin Pratt – the phenom of the day – with Madison Symphony, some years ago. He had garnered all kinds of press and hype because of his playing, of course, but primarily because he sported long dreadlocks, dressed casually for formal performances, and preferred what looked like a small table to a piano bench when playing (he was a very tall guy). His concert as guest soloist with Madison Symphony was much-hyped and anticipated.

    You can guess the outcome: a sub-par performance in every way – so forgettable, I don’t even remember what he played. The most exciting part of the performance was watching his dreads fly as he over-emoted to make up for sloppy technique and memory slips. Like you, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt: overbooked, under-rehearsed, not feeling well, but in the end it was a great disappointment.

    I haven’t heard much about Mr. Pratt – though admittedly I don’t follow these things as closely as I might – but he seems to have faded from view. Perhaps Ms. Lisitsa’s will be a similar story.

    And, this habit of Madison audiences to leap to their feet at the end of EVERY performance they hear – no matter the quality – is worthy of a column….just sayin’.

    Keep up the great work!

    Comment by Kathy O — November 24, 2014 @ 7:17 am

    • Hi Kathy,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I appreciate your comments, and I find your comments and comparison to Awadagin Pratt quite revealing, I too remember the hype and then being so underwhelmed by him.
      I think he has gone on to a good career, though hardly stellar, with some acclaimed performances and recordings (Brahms cello sonatas, for example, if I recall correctly).
      But your point stands.
      As to second-guessing myself, please see my reply to Paul. I just nat to invite others, and especially dissenters, to participate in the blog.
      Best wishes to you,

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 24, 2014 @ 8:03 am

  7. Jacob,

    You do a marvelous job. You almost seem to second-guess yourself with phrases like “But everyone’s a critic.”

    I would urge you not to do that. You have an authoritative, knowledgeable voice and to use such phrases detracts from your authority.

    Keep up the good work! And are you a member of MCANA? If not, please join!



    Comment by Hyde, Paul — November 24, 2014 @ 12:13 am

    • Hi Paul,
      Thank you so much for reading and replying.
      And thank you for your kind words and encouragement.
      What I write is a blog, not just a review or critique, so I like to encourage interaction with readers.
      What I said is not intended to be a way to second-guess myself so much as a means to invite others, especially dissenters, to offer their opinion.
      In the end, opinions of arts events are subjective and there is always the possibility that alternative points of view have some merit or validity.
      I am not familiar with MCANA (what does the acronym stand for? Maybe Music Critics of America National Association or something similar?) And I do not belong.
      The blog is just a hobby I have pursued after retiring from journalism and teaching.
      Best wishes,

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 24, 2014 @ 8:00 am

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