Summertime, with lots of patrons on vacation, combined with a recession never augurs well for audience turnout at concerts, much less for a fundraiser. It was sad to see the Recital Hall of the University of North Carolina Greensboro barely half full for this Greensboro Symphony recital. Those enterprising and loyal music lovers’ investment was repaid in spades! Pianist Valentina Lisitsa had generously donated her services, bringing a program of Russian rarities and challenging classics, and seemingly limitless keyboard prowess. CVNC … reviewed her appearances as accompanist for Hillary Hahn January 5, 2007 at East Carolina and February 14, 2009 at UNC Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill. Lisitsa had given this program earlier in Raleigh and Washington, NC as a warm up in preparation for the upcoming Festival Lanaudier, a Canadian music festival.

The 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) features pieces in each of the major and minor keys of the chromatic scale. In July of 1950, the composer served on the jury of the First International Bach Competition in Leipzig where he was impressed by pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva’s playing of selections from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. He decided to compose some preludes as fugues purely an exercise but he quickly realized the potential as a set for public performance. Opus 87’s initial reception by the Union of Composers in 1951 was fierce criticism by the Stalinist hacks. Lisitsa chose to open her recital with Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in D minor, which has a double fugue and shares a key signature and several features with the last fugue from Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The forte opening of the Prelude is quickly followed by a long, hushed and serene sequence that almost fades into silence as the first voice of the fugue begins. Lisitsa used a wide dynamic range and exquisite phrasing without losing control of the architecture of the piece.

This has been a good year for that Matterhorn of Late Classicism, Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier,” by Ludwig Beethoven (1770-1827) for North Carolina keyboard fanciers. Andras Schiff gave a deeply musical performance in UNC Memorial Hall in April. Lisitsa had no difficulty holding this sprawling work together without letting the musical line sag while attending to passing details. Her playing was breathtaking as she seemed to sail through every technical challenge with aplomb. Her control of dynamic range and her palette of tonal color was phenomenal. I would love to hear Lisitsa play this work again in a decade after she had lived with the piece longer. Growing musical insight married to nearly unfettered technique would be unbeatable.

The gorgeous Impromptus No. 3 in B-flat, Op. post. 142 (D. 935) by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) gave Lisitsa scope to show off her ability to spin seamless melodic lines as she made her piano “sing.”

The Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is a real rarity on recordings and in recital. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of melancholy Russian repertoire. It is passed over quickly in my favorite keyboard crutch, Five Centuries of Keyboard Music by John Gillespie, in favor of the revised version of the Second Sonata. In Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings by Max Harrison, it is revealed the First Sonata’s program is based on Goethe’s Faust following closely the program of Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony. The first movement, “Allegro moderato,” portrays Faust. The second movement “Lento” sketches Gretchen, while the third movement, “Allegro molto,” combines a blazing portrait of Mephistopheles with the witches’ flight to the Brocken and Walpurgis Night. Lisitsa pulled out all the virtuoso’s stops as she made the strongest possible case for this neglected work. She readily generated the full, rich tonal sound so necessary for this composer’s works. Her articulation was extraordinarily clear no mater how fast the passage or how sudden the change of tempo. She richly deserved the spontaneous enthusiastic standing ovation the audience gave her. Her fiery performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor was an apt encore for the Rachmaninoff.