My Funny Valentina

A couple years ago I stumbled upon Ukrainian pianiste extraordinaire Valentina Lisitsa, who in my opinion has changed the way classical piano is played in the modern era. Needless to say, not everyone agrees with me — too fast, too showy, too careless and OMG too commercial have been just some of the criticisms leveled at her.

I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, she’s an indie artist — she was unable to get a decent recording contract or gig with an orchestra, so she did the unthinkable and posted videos of herself playing solo piano on [gasp!] YouTube. Through that medium she built up a following and the rest, as they say is history.

I love just about every interpretation she gives the classical composers and I think that Chopin, for one, would have loved her interpretation of his work. (Try her Flight of the Bumblebee, wherein she starts at breakneck speed and actually accelerates as the piece progresses. Likewise, her version of the Revolutionary Etude is, well, revolutionary: full of shades of darkness and light.)

But Lisitsa doesn’t seem to play favorites among the classics; as well as the Romantics (Chopin, Beethoven, etc.) she plays Bach and Mozart with equal verve and astonishing sureness — “superficial”, one critic sniffed, the idiot — and even the majestic Piano Concerto No.2  by Rachmaninoff gets the Valentina Treatment. (If you were to ask me to choose between her version and that of the equally-talented Hélène Grimaud, I’d have to shoot myself.)

I also like that Lisitsa doesn’t confine herself to the concert hall or indeed to YouTube; she’s just as likely to go out into the public and just busk away on some crappy old upright piano as in a studio on her beloved Bösendorfer 290 (the King of Pianos, never mind that Steinway marketing).

But enough of my adulation. Listen to the pieces linked, please. You will not regret it.

Addendum: There’s been a lot of criticism of Lisitsa’s unashamed pro-Russian (and anti-Ukrainian) views, but I don’t care about any of that. I have the same opinion about that little fiasco as I do about the perennial Serb-Croat-Bosnian-Albanian imbroglio: taken as a whole they’re all a bunch of scumbags, and I don’t actually care which one “wins” as long as they keep it local.


  1. Thank you.

    Her moonlight sonata is brilliant. Twist one’s head in knots keeping up, make the spine tingle, and hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up brilliant. Wow.

    Oh well, there goes my Sunday…

  2. I have always been amazed as to how someone gets the job as “music critic”. Or “book reviewer”. As if, somehow their opinion is more valid than anyone else’s. With the exception of Schumann, I don’t know of any critic (and he was more of a promoter of those he thought worthy) that was a good enough musician to make any kind of value judgement on someone’s musical gifts. And, even if they were, in the end it is just an opinion. If this pianist had been playing prior to the internet she would have disappeared into obscurity. It reminds me of Frank Zappa’s quote about rock “journalists”:

    “People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.”

    I remember the payola scandal from the late 50’s and early 60’s. DJ’s and magazines were paid to promote certain artists. I doubt if its any different in the classical music scene. It’s just hidden better.

    1. I have the impression that there are two kinds of critics. The first kind, you pay attention to, because when they say they like something, you know you’ll like it too. The second kind, when they say they don’t like something, you know you’ll like it.

      And it seems that there are far more of the second kind, than there are of the first…

  3. Thanks for the heads up. It’d be interesting to hear her tackle the Goldberg Variations. Gould set the bar (impossibly?) high, but she could probably make it compelling. As much as I admire Keith Jarrett, his Goldberg was tedious.

  4. Thanks Kim, for this. I love finding new artists. I also love finding unknown talent that play just for the joy of it. You tube is a treasure for that. As to this lady being a sell out or something, I am a sax player. I used to follow the internet somewhat closely to keep my hand in what was going on. I remember the abuse that Kenny G. took for being a sell out because he played pop music that the masses liked, and not sticking to the more classical things that the “real” sax players thought he should have. The funny thing is, I have heard Kenny G. play Tenor Sax on any number of things, and his playing on that instrument would put many of the late greats to shame. My point is, why don’t people just enjoy talented people and not bitch about things trying to make themselves seem important. I love all forms of music, from classical to country, from jazz to rock. Let everyone listen to it all, and enjoy. Notice I didn’t mention rap. That is not music, just noise.

    1. I’m the geekiest jazz geek you never wanted to meet. As a teenager in the 80s, I was an asshole about it. If I heard anything that I couldn’t connect to Miles, Trane, Bird or Pops – It. Was. Shite. And you were suspect if you listened to said shite. Really endeared me to my peers.

      Re: Kenny G, I couldn’t agree more about the tenor playing you mentioned. I never condemned him for his commercial stuff, I just didn’t care for it. Ditto for David Sanborn & Grover Washington Jr. Your remark about KG’s tenor playing is just as applicable to Grover Washington Jr’s – not to mention his soprano.

  5. “…too fast, too showy, too careless and OMG too commercial…”
    Funny, I remember the same being said of Van Cliburn.
    She must be special.

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