Valentina Lisitsa virtually invented herself through social media and is supposedly the most viewed pianist on YouTube. If this is supposed to imbue her with cachet, I’m afraid it’s lost on me. The liner notes in this set read more like a media release, giving us chapter and verse about her doubts and tribulations (as if these were somehow unique to her) and adopt an unduly reverential tone, hardly worthy of a label like Decca. Since she and her husband (with whom she initially attempted a duo pianist career before abandoning it for a solo career) sank their life savings into this project and allegedly paid for the LSO, conductor and venue themselves, one can only wish them luck. One review has described this undertaking as the latter-day equivalent of vanity publishing. Lisitsa mentions that there was no rehearsal and she hadn’t met the conductor before the recording sessions. It shows in the playing – competent, the least one would expect from the LSO, but hardly incandescent.
The First and Fourth concertos have never really interested me very much. The Fourth seems to try (unsuccessfully) to incorporate jazz and the slow movement has the misfortune to bear a resemblance to Three Blind Mice. Lisitsa has all the technical prowess we take for granted now but not much imagination or finesse. The Second and Third Concertos are distinctly run-of-the-mill. The Second lacks the bittersweet quality and the uniquely Russian sense of yearning which made this work the prototype for Romantic film scores throughout the first half of the 20th century. The Third Concerto starts low on velocity and never seems searching enough to reveal the dramatic interplay of light and shade which lifts this music from mere bravura.
The list of pianists I would rather hear in this repertoire would be almost as long as this review. Ashkenazy has been a recommendable Rachmaninovian for most of his 50-year career; my own favourite Second Concerto is Weissenberg with Karajan. Martha Argerich is sans pareil in the Third, with Chailly and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra similarly on fire yet alert to every nuance. In the Fourth, the only person who can really make it sing is Michelangeli in his 55-year-old recording with the old Philharmonia in cracking form.