Behold the quintessential 21st-century classical musician, Valentina Lisitsa, an American-based Ukrainian whose homemade videos have garnered 50 million YouTube hits (and counting), and forged for the formerly unemployed pianist an international career that culminated in this recital in June at the Royal Albert Hall. Decca are the Johnny-Come-Latelys in all of this, but have given it the due sense of urgency, releasing the completed package online just a week after YouTube viewers had watched the whole thing unfolding live.
Minor-league pianists making such a dramatic leap to major success usually have some marketable eccentricity, like a potty mouth or a tragic autobiography or a swimsuit model’s figure, but aside from a shock of blonde hair à la Claudia Schiffer, Lisitsa doesn’t. What she does have, though, is a sincerity about her playing and an ability to communicate with her audiences visually and emotionally, together with a refreshingly olde-worlde technique honed in the East European tradition of Josef Hofmann and Rachmaninov.
Purists will still find plenty to hate about her playing, especially her stilted Chopin, but she has more than enough artistic credibility to take on the kind of repertoire featured here in this plebiscite concert programmed, naturally enough, by her YouTube fans and featuring an array of greatest piano hits. Wisely, though, the 39-year-old former chess champion sticks by everything that made her famous in the first place. She barely acknowledges the audience in music’s most prestigious venue, not even bothering to turn toward them between items – after all, the cameras trained on her from every angle and the two big screens behind her capture every smile of gratitude and acknowledgement, wherever they’re directed.
So it’s just her, the music, and millions of voyeurs sharing her private moment. Musically, the standout is the bracket of Rachmaninov Preludes – including a poetic G major Op 32, No 5 and frantic G minor Op 23, No 5 – showing her sympathy for this lush Romantic repertoire. Rachmaninov himself loved playing Scriabin and obviously Lisitsa does too, the Mosquito Etude being another highlight.
She revisits several of her biggest YouTube hits, including Rachmaninov’s Little Red Riding Hood Etude and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, both of them strangely colourless when heard only on the soundtrack, but somehow much more compelling when watched. The barnstorming suite of three Liszt works that closes proceedings is masterly, and might just convince people to pay for this staged version of what they’re used to getting for free.