My wife and I have recently attended two remarkable piano recitals - the May 22nd Royal Festival Hall rare London appearance by Arcadi Volodos and last night's YouTubed Royal Albert Hall debut by Valentina Lisitsa. I had heard Valentina before, in the 2004 inaugural concert of the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. She gave a lively, exciting rendition of Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations that fabulous summer night, in the superb acoustic environment of Millennium Park's Great Lawn trellis. As for Arcadi, I had grown to love many of his recordings (I'll be sharing for a while a sampling of his Rach repertoire in the “box of delights").
While the RFH is a wonderful space for music, allowing a single piano in the hands of a master to fill the room with sound of utmost clarity and depth, the RAH is a miserable venue for a piano recital. Yes, it makes for a great video production setting, but the constant noise of the ventilation system and the (lousy) electronic amplification of stage sound wipe out almost any chance of musical enjoyment. Even so, what was really disturbing for us (especially for me, since I, in my atheism, take concert going religiously) was the public's behavior at both events. The unrelenting coughing, fidgeting, dropping of stuff, creaking of stuff, unwrapping of stuff, going off of phones and alarms, and just plain obnoxious muttering accumulate into a sea of despair where the simple pleasure of listening drowns. I have already promised myself and my wife not to attend another piano recital in London ever again. Studio recordings will have to do.
In spite of all that, Arcadi was a constant delight, a pianist in consistent control of his technique and rich in musical insight, while Valentina was a bit of a mess. Indeed, the Kievan has a winsome, unassuming personality (she spoke to the audience, even to let us know what the final score of England vs. Ukraine had been), and generally good interpretive instincts. But her performance is technically uneven and sometimes downright loose, her tempos can be unnecessarily brave, her thinking clouded by impetuosity. On the other hand, the Leningradian's Liszt sonata was an exquisite jewel, showcased with breathtaking simplicity and expressiveness. Some reviewers (musicologists, of course) have found his playing facile (in its seemingly effortless precision) and lacking in Idea. I deem them idiots who haven't understood yet that music itself - well served by the illusion of ease - is the idea.