Archive for March, 2016

Lise de la Salle

Lise de la SalleAfter attending Lise de la Salle’s Chicago recital on Sunday, Symphony Center sent me a request to fill in an online survey about my experience. Since I was promised it would only take about seven to ten minutes of my time, I foolishly complied. It started with the usual marketing questions – how did I find out about the concert, how many people did I go with, did I feel welcomed, etc – but then moved into distinctly bizarre territory. “At any point during the concert did you lose track of time and get fully absorbed? What words best describe how the performance made you feel (max. of 6)? Did the performance raise questions in your mind? Were you going to reflect privately about the meaning of the work” I felt as if they should have warned me to lie on a couch when trying to answer. I dreaded opening each new page, wondering if they would ask me next if any of the music reminded me of the time my first pet died.

As it happens, there were points in the concert when I lost track of time, but I wasn’t going to tell that to an online shrink. That is what this blog is for. I tried to be positive though because presumably the management will read it and I hope they invite Lise de la Salle back. She is an uncommonly serious artist. Although she clearly enjoys parading her virtuoso credentials, and had chosen a formidably difficult program of mostly Ravel and Liszt, she can also be intensely communicative by drawing us into moments of utter stillness. Increasingly, I feel the purpose of music is to transport us to what Marcus Borg called “thin places,” sacred space where we feel particularly aware of the numinous, where meaning transcends words. This is most often achieved when musicians dare to suspend time, to focus on the intensity of the present, to concentrate on a single chord or phrase. There were several times in de la Salle’s recital where I felt that was what she was trying to achieve, more than any other pianists I have heard recently.

This makes her particularly well suited to Liszt, at least Liszt the mountaintop visionary rather than Liszt the barnstorming virtuoso, the Liszt who concluded his sonata with a single subterranean note.  She played a fascinating sequence of transcriptions, starting with the sombre Lacrymosa drawn from Mozart’s Requiem and ending with one of the most ecstatic climaxes I have heard in the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. In between, she played some song transcriptions by Schumann and Schubert. Liszt is quite faithful to the spirit of these songs, even if he throws in the odd arpeggiated flourish, so Schumann was portrayed as far more youthfully ardent than Liszt would have been, while the Schubert Ständchen was even more wistful than the original, given here an especially mesmerizing performance.

The recital wasn’t all at this transcendental level. She played Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit in the first half, and while she had the notes under her fingers (and there are a lot), I felt that there wasn’t the superfine control of sonorities that, for example, Cedric Tiberghien had in his wonderful performance last year. It is extraordinary how Ravel disguises the percussive nature of the piano in Ondine, transforming hammer strikes into ripples and waves of sound. This performance had moments of great tonal beauty, but I think the water nymph splashed a little too much. I’m also not convinced that de la Salle solved the problem of making the tolling bell in Le Gibet insistently hypnotic. This death knell seemed to drift in and out of focus without any obvious reason. Still, Scarbo was as spritely as you could wish.

She ended the performance in league with the devil, playing Liszt’s Dante Sonata, followed by a lithe rendition of Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique as an encore. There is a remarkable flowering of young(ish) pianistic talent in France. Last year, we heard Tiberghien and Alexandre Tharaud. What is encouraging is that they all think deeply about their music and play with thoroughly distinctive styles. The suggestion that the current generation of pianists play with a blandly homogenized technique couldn’t be farther from the truth. Lise de la Salle seems the most rhetorical of the three, perhaps the most self-consciously profound. When it works, she can be ‘intense’, ‘thoughtful’, ‘grave’, ‘serene’,  ‘visionary’, ‘transcendental’, .. I seem to have used up my six words. I’ll have to wait for the next survey.



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