Classical CD Reviews

RACHMANINOV: The Piano Concertos (complete); Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – Valentina Lusitsa, piano/ London Sym. Orch./ Michael Francis – Decca

The risk pays off in the end—Lusitsa has given us a set fully worthy of her predecessors.

Published on May 24, 2013

RACHMANINOV: The Piano Concertos (complete); Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 – Valentina Lusitsa, piano/ London Sym. Orch./ Michael Francis – Decca B0018117 (2 CDs), 145:55 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

As some classical fans will know, Valentina Lusitsa has achieved fame by way of the Internet, specifically YouTube, maybe the first modern example of an artist using that medium to such effective results. Her performances there have had a reported 50 million hits, not bad for anyone, but especially for a classical artist. The attractive 43-year-old was born in Kiev, started playing at the age of three, and currently resides in North Carolina with her husband, also a pianist. She almost gave up on the idea of a concert career and took a job with the government in Washington D.C. until a co-worker talked her out of it. When she posted her first video to YouTube in 2007 it opened the door for her, and now with six recordings for Audiofon Records and several others, her career is well underway.

Decca didn’t do this as charity however; it is rumored that it took Lusitsa’s life savings to finance these Rachmaninov recordings with the London Symphony. And as a first major recording with a major label this is a rather audacious risk the artist is taking, throwing her towel in the ring with many of the greats, many of whom have given us great recordings of these pieces. Two of the five, Concertos 1 and 4, still reside on the fringes of the repertoire and as such are easier marks for a newcomer. Lusitsa plays both of them with a lot of fire and energy, emphasizing the quite advanced romantic harmonies in No. 1 and treating No. 4 as anything but an unsuccessful sequel to the two that came before. Her command of the keyboard is extraordinary, and one should really look at her videos to see why; her elongated, thin, and flexible fingers, graceful and smooth, make her feats of prestidigitation quite fluent and flawless, and a perfect set of hands needed for a composer like Rachmaninov.

When we get to Nos. 2 and 3 the competition rises to the extreme, though Lusitsa says that she feels she has something to say in these tried, tired, and true works. Her comparisons often hearken to the composer himself, whom she says proved a revelation to her when she first listened to his own recordings. Gone were the accretions of so many years, the over-exaggeration stressed by so many pianists in order to sensationalize performances. Well, maybe; the fact is that this composer can take a lot of exaggeration and still make his points. But Lusitsa’s are not in vain, and her fast tempos (I wondered whether she would be able to maintain the first movement of the D-minor at the speed she chose but she did indeed) give a new and rather breathtaking dimension to works that are usually plowed for more profundity and mystery than they might actually have. She does not linger, but she also does not hesitate to pour it on when the “big” tunes arrive.  Likewise her Paganini Variations—some people will want more stretching of the tunes, but she sacrifices in breadth she makes up for in depth. Her playing reminds me not so much of other Russian pianists but instead of a younger Martha Argerich, the same robust tone and tempestuousness of temperament.

Michael Francis learned of Lusitsa’s intention via solo recordings that she made of each movement, as they did not have the means to meet before the sessions began. He does a fine job, coaxing the normally immaculate yet reserved Londoners into some truly inspired playing. Decca’s sound is for the most part wide and involving, sometimes losing the piano in the midst of the orchestral cacophony, yet I also think this is what it probably really sounded like in the studio, and the results are most exciting. The risk pays off in the end—Lusitsa has given us a set fully worthy of her predecessors.

—Steven Ritter

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