TCHAIKOVSKY Complete Works for Solo Piano (Valentina Lisitsa)
Valentina Lisitsa is bold, fearless and forthright to just the right degree in the early works, keen to relish every opportunity Tchaikovsky offers to rack up the tension. We seem set fair for a convincing and idiomatic survey of the solo works … until, oh dear, we hit the buffers on track 6 – the rarely played Valse-caprice, Op 4. What we get is a deconstruction of the piece played at practice speed, lasting an interminable 13'31". Both Viktoria Postnikova (8'47") and Michael Ponti (5'33", with the repeat of the first section omitted), in their complete Tchaikovsky sets, present the true spirit of the piece.
Working one’s way through all 10 discs, you realise with mounting disappointment that this mannerism is something like a default position with Lisitsa when it comes to reflective, technically undemanding works. Indeed, I recall a recital in Cremona a few years ago when she eked out the last pages of a sequence of Chopin Nocturnes with extended rallentandos to the same somnolent effect. Here, for example, are the 12 Morceaux, Op 40, an archetypical Tchaikovsky mixture of inspired and insipid short works. It begins with the brief ‘Étude’, a veritable whirlwind that Lisitsa storms through with thrilling velocity and a marvellous leggiero touch. Immediately after that comes the lovely (and well-known) ‘Chanson triste’. Tchaikovsky marks this Allegro non troppo (not Lisitsa’s moderato) and requests that la melodia be played con molto espressione – which means a degree of rubato, yes, but not a tenuto on the first beat of every bar, dragging down the pulse and bringing a stop go momentum to proceedings. Again, the tempo Lisitsa adopts for No 9 (another salon favourite) is hardly Tempo di valse, its airy grace replaced by a heavy tread, the left-hand melody of its central section dominated by the secondary material in the right hand.
Whenever there is a piece or part of a piece that demands fleet fingers and incisive rhythm – the second sections of ‘Au village’ (No 7), say, and ‘Danse russe’ (No 10) – then Lisitsa is bang on the money; whenever the mood is retrospective or reflective, she becomes a vivisectionist, unpicking these fragile miniatures so that the structure collapses. Try No 12, ‘Rêverie interrompue’, which drifts home at 6'08" compared with Posnikova’s 4'29", a faster reading that, ironically, projects a dreamlike reverie far more vividly. The last track on this CD (disc 6) is Dumka, Op 59, which illustrates to perfection Lisitsa’s Jekyll and Hyde approach.
It is one that is also in evidence on disc 4, which is devoted to The Seasons. Much (in fact, most) of the playing here is quite lovely but, just when you are thinking that this is an account to set beside the best, you sit becalmed in a gondola, with the ‘Barcarolle’ (June) extended to over six minutes. Mikhail Pletnev, who himself is in no hurry to come home, gets to the heart of the matter in 4'36" (Virgin/Erato, 12/94).
So then what do you do when you are presented on disc 3 with both the sonatas (the Grand Sonata, Op 37, followed by the early Sonata in C sharp minor published posthumously) in two of the finest performances I have come across? Lisitsa swallows them whole, with playing of immense power and conviction, allowing herself plenty of time to dream when required without ever slipping into her unsustainable practice-tempo mode. With her incisive attack and steely articulation, this is piano-playing of great character and individuality. If you have stayed clear of Tchaikovsky’s sonatas, these may be the performances that tempt you to investigate.
Elsewhere are Tchaikovsky’s other collections of short works (Opp 19, 39, 51 and 72), works without opus numbers, and the Fifty Russian Folk Songs arranged for four hands (Lisitsa is joined in these by Alexei Kuznetsoff). Discs 9 and 10 are devoted to Tchaikovsky’s own piano arrangements of his orchestral works including the complete Nutcracker, Potpourri on Themes from ‘The Voyevoda’, the Festival Coronation March (a dreadful piece in any form), and the 1812 overture (a thankless task for any pianist). However, the transcription of Marche slave is extraordinary, an ingenious reworking for the keyboard and a stunning tour de force by Lisitsa. On its own it might just be enough to make you press that ‘add to cart’ button.
I might say that the piano, a Bösendorfer, has been very well recorded, even if Lisitsa can sometimes produce a somewhat hectoring, brittle tone at fortissimo and above. The presentation of the 10 discs and the booklet are first-class. In conclusion, Lisitsa offers the most comprehensive Tchaikovsky intégrale on the market but I shall not be replacing my much-played Ponti LPs or, on balance, Postnikova’s seven CDs. I can do without The Nutcracker and the 1812 on the piano – and, ultimately, without the series of eccentric musical decisions that mar Lisitsa’s set.