Tuesday, 22 May 2018


Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (20 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 May 2018 with the title "Fast, furious and masterful takes on epic works".

The Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa is no stranger to monster programmes, so it may seem that she showed relative restraint by limiting her most recent recital (her third in Singapore since 2007) to just four works. Yet, these were epics of the repertoire, and she knew exactly how to make them sound big.

First off was Beethoven's Sonata No.23 in F minor (Op.57), better known as the “Appassionata”. The opening was icy and sullen, then came the build-up of huge chords which soon filled the hall with red hot passion, matching the bright shade of her gown. A few wrong notes were tossed off with nonchalance, as nothing would stand in the way of her single-minded steely charge.

The slow movement's theme and variations provided moments of calm respite, before the perpetual motion in the whirlwind finale swept any hint of doubt aside. The next work, Rachmaninov's First Sonata in D minor (op.28), purportedly inspired by the Faust legend, would follow a similar schema except on an even larger scale.

Most pianists take between 35 to 40 minutes to tackle this behemoth, but Lisitsa horse-whipped it to just under 31 minutes. It sounded rushed at parts, especially in the Mephistophelean finale, but there was no mistaking her mastery of its overarching narrative. An ageing but restless Faust (portrayed in the opening movement) was well contrasted with the innocence and tenderness of Gretchen (the slow movement) before the finale's Dies Irae chant-filled onslaught to the abyss.

For the first of three devilish pieces in Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, Lisitsa found a silken and pearly touch for the watery realm of Ondine, before a tidal wave of arpeggios at the end revealed a more malevolent intent. Le Gibet (The Gallows) was coloured with the incessant tolling of a distant bell, a sort of fatal aural balm hypnotically cast in B flat.

In the notorious Scarbo, the suite's most fiendishly difficult movement, she went for broke by tearing through its thorny and barbed thickets. Again it seemed all too fast, with the crossing octaves and chords at the rapturous climaxes coming across like a blur, but the effect was no less gripping. There was a stunned silence before applause rang out unreservedly.

The programme's final work was Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which began with a take-no-prisoners approach for its opening Promenade. Fortunately a more nuanced performance than earlier anticipated unfolded, with a wealth of contrasts and dynamics displayed in the successive movements. However, one would still marvel at the speed and power in Lisitsa's cascading octaves for Baba Yaga's Hut (almost a first cousin of Scarbo) and the concluding Great Gate of Kiev, which brought down the house.     

Ever generous with encores, Lisitsa showered her adoring audience with Liszt's coruscating Second Hungarian Rhapsody and all three movements of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. A standing ovation ensured that no one went home empty-handed.  

Valentina Lisitsa's piano recital was a presentation in the Aureus Great Artists Series.

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