Review: Pianist Lise de la Salle at the Phillips Collection

Picking through bombastic music to extract the musical message and leave a lingering impression of something other than bombast is a skill to be cherished among pianists on the international stage.

That was the main achievement of French pianist Lise de la Salle at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon. Her nearly complete triumph with the music of Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Sergei Prokofiev had the highly engaged Phillips audience hanging on every note even more than usual.

Lise de la Salle. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Even the opening third of Ms. de la Salle’s recital was a major highlight for the 28-year-old who nevertheless has been part of the world classical scene since she was a teenager. Franz Liszt’s “transcriptions” or reductions to a solo piano of complex orchestra or vocal music are a notorious piece of treachery. For the performer they present the double challenge of both making the piano sing and dealing with the fact that Liszt, one of history’s greatest virtuosos, wrote the material for himself with no mercy for lesser mortals who might dare to sit at the keyboard with his stuff in the future.

I loved a device that Ms. de la Salle employed in all three Liszt transcriptions, including Schumann’s Widmung or “Dedication” and Frühlingsnacht or “Spring Night” plus Richard Wagner’s Liebestod (literally “Love Death”) from the opera Tristan und Isolde. She managed to harness an obsessive tic of Liszt’s where he surrounds internal melodies played in the middle of the piano by whatever fingers in the right and left hands are available with repeated block chords relentlessly pounded out by the rest of the 10 fingers all over the keyboard.

Liszt’s intent was to create a constant dramatic “surround” for the internal melodies, and Ms. de la Salle achieved that. But at the end of six or eight or ten repetitive chord poundings she would almost always slightly pull back the volume of the final couple of chords, defeating the natural performer tendency to keep goosing the dynamics until the end. That gave the “ear” a break, offered the internal melodies more of a chance to breathe, and preserved the energy of the entire piece until the end.

It’s an individual listener preference, but personally I prefer to hear bombastic, “impressive” music when I’m less, rather than more, nervous about whether it’s going to come off, like an Olympic gymnastics or figure-skating competition. Ms. de la Salle had this challenge beautifully in hand with her approach that traced a more undulating line through the transcriptions rather than beating them to death with unrelieved super-virtuosity.

Ms. de la Salle also impressed with her final selection, a suite of 10 piano selections from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, whose (nearly) complete score was recently performed by the National Symphony Orchestra with its incoming music director Gianandrea Noseda.

The 10 excerpts are not random – they constitute a separate, formal piano work in Prokofiev’s own catalogue of works – and they’re also not necessarily in the ballet’s order but generate their own dramatic logic. Ms. de la Salle gave an informative, quite entertaining spoken introduction to what to look for along the way. That proved especially meaningful when she described where in the middle of a minuet at the ball there’s an interlude indicating the moment Romeo and Juliet first eye each other. (Don’t worry if you’ve never seen the ballet – just think of that moment in West Side Story in the Dance at the Gym when Tony and Maria see each other. Same thing.)

As a result, certain adjacent pairings of the 10 excerpts were particularly enjoyable. The minuet is followed by an excerpt called “Young Juliet,” popular among top world pianists for its fun, scampering writing which they sometimes perform by itself. Ms. de la Salle’s progress from the minuet to “Young Juliet,” which is a bit of a prequel to her meeting Romeo, and which itself has both extroverted and introverted moments representing aspects of a young teenager’s days and daydreams, was really delightful.

Another consecutive pair of the 10 that stood out were “Montagues and Capulets” – the official name of a segment that is usually really known as “The Dance of the Knights,” by far the ballet’s best-known tune for its frequent adaptation into commercials and movies – followed by Friar Laurence’s theme. In “The Dance of the Knights,” Ms. de la Salle shed all of the slight reticence and shaping she had earlier used in the loud parts of Liszt’s music and dramatically filled the Phillips’ ornate Music Room with power and authority. The Friar Laurence theme then emphasized the deep sonority of the museum’s recently refurbished Steinway grand piano for several moments of repose, reflection and regret. It was another great juxtaposition.

Ms. de la Salle had a bit less success with the middle third of her concert. Many pianists load their core repertory with the solo piano music of Robert Schumann – not the songs reworked by Liszt but Schumann’s own big piano-solo conceptions. One of his biggest of all is the Fantasy in C Major, a three-movement cornucopia of melody, youthful energy, yearning love themes and fanciful dreamscapes wrapped up in a ball of sometimes ridiculous virtuosity. There were times when the music appeared to lose some inherent structure, with the time value of some notes and even rests getting slightly clipped and a couple of sketchy moments in the actual notes.

Because of her devotion to world diffusion of music and music education, Ms. de la Salle had very recently returned to the U.S. from performances and master classes in Central and South America. Her fun spoken description of the trips’ helter-skelter logistics for the entire audience made it clear she had optimistically trusted the lack of north-south time change to obviate the risk of jet lag – without accounting for the risk of sleep loss from international travel regardless.

Ms. de la Salle has recorded the Schumann Fantasy and no doubt it was under more ideal scheduling for her than Sunday’s live concert. I can tell you this: I can’t imagine such a thing being effectively performed on little sleep under any circumstances. And Ms. de la Salle ended with a barnburner of an encore – Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableux in C minor, Opus 39, No. 1. The extraordinary drive of such a piece brought the concert to a fully energetic close.

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Pianist Lise de la Salle performed on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 4 PM at the Phillips Collection – 1600 21st Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For the remainder of Phillips’ Sunday concert schedule this season, see the Phillips Music website. For Lise de la Salle’s recordings and upcoming schedule, see her website.

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David Rohde
David Rohde is a pianist, conductor, arranger, vocal coach, and arts writer. David has worked extensively in musical theater in the mid-Atlantic region and has served as music director for 30 shows and played in pit orchestras for numerous others. Favorite shows he’s conducted span a live-music adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus to rock musicals like Evita and Next to Normal. They especially include the Stephen Sondheim musicals Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George and the Jason Robert Brown musicals Parade and The Last Five Years. David’s national commentaries on styles from classical music to pop and country music have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and elsewhere, and his other past performances range from a piano recital series at the National Lutheran Home to fronting a band one night in Rockville for the late Joan Rivers. David is a two-time recipient and eight-time nominee for the WATCH Award for Outstanding Music Direction, and he loves watching the actors and musicians he’s worked with “make it” when they pursue regional and national performing arts careers.


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