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Virtuoso Phenom

January 27, 2009

While not flawless, pianist Lise de la Salle's Sunday afternoon recital in San Francisco Conservatory's Concert Hall proved that, at all of age 20, she's already a virtuoso of the front rank. A few minor problems turned up along the way, but nothing that could dim an otherwise startling event. Her San Francisco Performances program opened with Mozart's showy Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 284, followed by Liszt's Legend in E Major, "St. Francis of Palma Walking on the Waves," plus two of his concert études, Forest Murmurs and Gnomes' Dance. Following intermission came the 10 pieces that Prokofiev arranged from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, plus that old Horowitz blockbuster Prokofiev's Toccata in D Minor, Op. 11.

There seemed to be nothing de la Salle lacked in the way of natural dexterity, as her hands and fingers ripped through the fastest, most demanding passages in relaxed fluidity. I especially appreciated the lack of vulgar antics: throwing a hand up in the air, weaving of the torso in supposed ecstasy and such. She doesn't have to pretend anything in order to hold the attention of her audiences. We all sat there, spellbound.

Born in Cherbourg, de la Salle showed early signs of her inborn talent. She played her first recital for Radio-France at age 9, and was then admitted to the Paris Conservatory two years later. She made her orchestral debut in Avignon at age 13, playing Beethoven's Second Concerto, before giving a recital in the Louvre and embarking on her first orchestral tour playing Haydn's D-Major Concerto. Since then she's won virtually every award Europe has to offer, including being selected for Gramophone's "Record of the Month." That was in 2005, for her solo disc of Mozart and Prokofiev. (She landed her first recording contract at age 16.)

Jaw-Dropping Technique

Her playing tends toward the assertive. That boded well for the thunderous Liszt and Prokofiev works. The gradually rising climax of the hymnlike St. Francis piece was so beautifully graduated that one sensed a smooth line of development free of dynamic shifts. That's musicianship of a high order. Yet when she reached the Études, the whiplash gnomes-dance in particular, it flashed along like a sonic jet. That was enough to make jaws collectively drop.

What this young woman can do with such a bravura piece is astounding. So, too, those character studies from Prokofiev's Shakespearean ballet were wonderfully apt. The single movement that sounded a tad tedious was the Friar Laurence movement, taken a little under tempo. On the other hand — let's face it — this music isn't Prokofiev at his best. That, however, was made up for by the following study on Mercutio, played with full zest and sparkling humor.

Then came the fury of Prokofiev's contrapuntal nightmare, his Toccata. It calls for every sort of technical demand: fast hand-crossing, the two hands often playing one atop the other, fingers tangling among themselves. I don't consider anything in his concertos quite so demanding; that's the main reason you see the Toccata programmed so sparingly. De la Salle virtually played the paint off the walls with this I-dare-you work. Even the famous Horowitz recording is no finer.

So, what problems were in evidence? She was a little rough on the Mozart Sonata, which ended up sounding more appropriate to a Beethoven Sonata than the elegance of Mozart's refinement. The assertive side of her playing seemed to hold sway throughout, particularly in the finale variations. One of the variations, for instance, will finish a phrase, then end with a single bass note. Those she thumped in a distinctly disruptive manner. It sounded almost as if someone had hit a bass drum. And her left hand is perhaps too strong for its own good; several times it outbalanced the dynamics of her right hand. Tempos, though, were marvelously judged here, as indeed they were all afternoon. Needless to say, the final applause was thunderous and standing, with repeated curtain calls before she announced, "Thank you. Chopin."

De la Salle then sat down and played the most poetically sensitive performance imaginable of Chopin's plaintive Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor, Op. Posth., as an encore. It was almost painfully beautiful. Mark down Lisa de la Salle as a name to remember, for clearly hers should be a very major career.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.
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