Lise De La Salle at CSO Piano Series Program Review - A Great Pianist in a Great Concert Hall

French pianist Lise De La Salle made her Symphony Center debut last Sunday, March 6, 2016 as part of the Symphony Center Presents PowerShares QQQ Piano series. She chose the exceptionally strong program of Bach, Ravel and Liszt with the desire to take the audience “on a journey”. Upright as a flame in a red gown, she commanded the black concert grand, illuminated the hall and carved a place for herself in the hearts of the enrapt audience with her clear mastery of the extremely difficult works.

Lise De La Salle, photo courtesy of Stephane Gallois for Vanity Fair

The program opened with Bach’s “Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor,” (BWV 1004), written by Johann Sebastian Bach between 1717 and 1722, and arranged for solo piano by Ferruccio Busoni in 1893. The partita contains 5 movements: the “Allemande”, “Courante”, “Sarabande,” “Gigue” and “Chaconne”. Violinist Joshua Bell has said that the "Chaconne," held by some to be a tombeau written in memory of Bach’s first wife, is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It is a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”.

The magnificent and complex “Chaconne,” nearly 15 minutes long, was played to perfection by De La Salle; the music is inventive, deep, universal, and modern in feeling - it seemed to represent the full cycle of life itself.

 Next on the program was Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit”, (“Treasurer of the Night”) written in 1908. A suite of pieces for solo piano, it has three movements, “Ondine”, “Le Gibet” and “Scarbo,” each based on a poem from the collection of the same name, completed in 1836 by Aloysius Bertrand. This piece of music, particularly the “Scarbo,” is actually famous for its difficulty! Due to its technical challenges coupled with its profound musical structure, “Scarbo “is thought to be one of the most difficult solo piano pieces in the standard repertoire.

“Ondine,” based on the tale of a water lily who, like the sirens of Greek mythology, sings to seduce her observors into visiting her lake-kingdom, sounds like water falling and flowing in cascades- the technical challenge here includes the fast repetition of 3-chord notes; De La Salle’s right hand flew over the keyboard to meet this challenge in the 6 and one-half minute duration.

 “Le Gibet”, presents a desert where a hanged corpse on a gibbet stands against the red horizon. A bell tolls from inside a distant walled city. Throughout the entire 7 and one-quarter minute piece, one hears “a B-flat octave ostinato, imitative of the tolling bell, that must remain distinctive and constant in tone as the notes cross over and dynamics change”. De La Salle relentlessly created the deathly atmosphere intended by the poem; eerie yet mournfully lovely, the piece sounded out into every corner of the concert hall.

 Ravel, commenting on “Scarbo”, said, “I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me”. This movement, 8 and one-half minutes in duration, depicts the antics of a goblin at night- flitting from shadow to darkness, crashing into walls, creating a nightmare scene. It contains repeated notes, two “terrifying” climaxes, and technical challenges including repeated notes in both right and left hands as well as double-note scales in major seconds in the right hand. It is the high point in difficulty of the three movements; Ravel allegedly said about the “Scarbo”, “I wanted to write an orchestral transcription for the piano”. De La Salle helped him to realize this desire - the intense surround of sound that welled up and out in the spectacular acoustics of Symphony Center seemed to contain the efforts of many musicians.

 De La Salle has strongly featured Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in her performance and recordings- indeed, she was thrust into the spotlight of fame at 16 with the release of  a Bach/ Liszt recording labeled “Recording of the month" by Gramophone Magazine. The second half of the concert cosisted of  a group of  six works by that composer, including various arrangements of works by Schumann and Schubert and featured  the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s “Requiem”, and Isolde’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, concluding with Liszt's "Dante" Sonata.

Lise De La Salle, photo courtesy of Lynn Goldsmith

The 6th movement of  “Requiem in D Minor”, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K.626, the “Lacrimosa”,  was unfinished at his death in 1791  and completed by Franz Xavier Sussmayer the following year.  This beautiful piece of the great “Requiem Mass” is considered to reveal “some of the deepest feelings of human beings and one of mankind’s biggest fears: Death”.

 Robert Schumann composed 140 songs in 1940, the year he married Clara, many of which are gathered into cycles. This year is, in fact, known as his "year of song". The "Myrthen"("Myrtles") a group of 26 songs, were his wedding gift to Clara. The "Liebeslied" or "Lovesong" on "Widmung", or "Dedication", Op. 25, is one of his most highly regarded.  The "Liederkreis", Op. 39, begun in 1840, is regarded as one of the great song cycles of the 19th century; the "Fruhlingsnacht", or "Spring Song", is the 12th song in the cycle.

 The "Schwanengesang", ("Swan song"), D. 957, is the title of a collection of songs written by Franz Schubert at the end of his life, and published posthumously. Franz Liszt later transcribed these songs for solo piano. In  "Standchen", or "Serenade", the singer entreats his lover to give him happiness.

With “Isoldens Liebenstod”, List’s piano transcription of the closing scene from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde”, we heard a work of one composer fundamentally based on that of another described as “so pianistically ingenious…and so orchestral”.

The finale, The "Dante", a piano sonata in a single movement, thought to be written by Liszt in the late 1830's, is divided into two main subjects. First, there is a chromatic theme in D minor, typifying the wailing of souls in Hell, with much use of an augmented 4th/diminished 5th tritone, known as "the Devil's Interval". The second theme is a "beautific" chorale in F-sharp major, representing joy in heaven.

  Each virtuosic piece was splendidly brought with deep force to fruition by the studied gifts of this fine performance artist.

  All together, this enormously ambitious concert, with its two demanded encores, was thoroughly realized by a pianist well known for abundant strength and maturity. It was a program almost too full- unsettling in its sweep. Lise De La Salle is a musician  of great magnitude, and it was a joy to hear her play.

 Follow her recordings on Naïve, and for more information about her, check  lisledelasalle 

 For tickets to other great concerts in the Symphony Center Presents PowerSharesQQQPiano series and all the other great concerts at Chicago Symphony Center, go to CSO concerts


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