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Is Val’s Rachmaninov set a five-star wonder?

The story of Valentina Lisitsa’s journey from displaced Ukrainian in rural America to the most popular pianist on Youtube is too well known to bear repeating. In the course of the journey, she recorded at her own expense the four concertos of Sergei Rachmaninov and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. After many tribulations, the set was released today on Decca.

I have lived with a private copy of the recordings for a couple of years and have listened to the different concertos at least half a dozen times. So does it stand up there with the all-time greats? See my review on


val rach

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  1. Maybe time will make front covers of recent years, look like in some way too-much dated.

    it’s seems It was a wold release, since I saw it in a local store (Far way from London).

  2. Göran Södervall says:

    In complete agreement with the appreciation of Valentina Lisitsa and am eagerly waiting for the CD to arrive. I have some live performances with her that are quite stunnningr and with Ida Haendel in a Mozart and Beethoven recital. There are, admittedly ,a number of young great women pianists from the former Soviet Union but Lisitsa is definitely one of the best.


  3. David Boxwell says:

    Best since Ashkenazy, almost 40 years ago? For his re-issue cover, Stephen Hough better wear strapless and show cleavage if he’s going to make any impression in this market.

    • Dr. Marc Villeger says:

      Valentina Lisitsa simply wears very well a tasteful evening gown and is staged in a pose that could hardly be considered provocative by any standard. A reflection of the album’s content?

      • joe salerno says:

        When seeing the jacket image I can’t help but think of Julie Andrews in the opening scene of Sound of Music. Except the jacket doesn’t move.

  4. harold braun says:

    Just bought it and heard it.It is a really faboulous recording,absolutely thrilling,and,yes,one of the best complete sets along with those of Wild,Hough,and Rachmaninoff himself. The contributions of Mr.Francis and the LSO are also very fine,vivid,and and full of details glossed over by many conductors.

    • harold braun says:

      And one of the few recent versions which comes close to Rachmaninovs tempi (like Hough`s,too),without too much lingering and sentimentalizing.

  5. The whole idea of Sinfini doing reviews is just plain wrong …

    But then again, this is what journalism has come to. A new not so new age

    • Please explain yourself. I will ignore the slur on my integrity while you do so.

      • I’ll have no quarrel. But Sinfini is a corporate venture Norman. It’s like the Met writing its own critiques … oh wait …

        • That’s a misplaced metaphor. When the Met sought to influence Opera News reviews, it got a bloody nose and backed off. Sinfini is owned by Universal but the people who edit and write for it have full editorial freedom. if that were not the case, I would not be there.

          • With all due respect I find it quite presumptuous to expect people to believe that.

            Coincidentally, still no review of Klaus Florian Vogt’s Sony Wagner release following the five star Kauffman review.

            We do what we must. ‘L’homme n’est rien, l’oeuvre – tout’

        • Derek Castle says:

          I thnk it’s ‘Kaufmann’

  6. Kristian says:

    While I haven’t heard the recordings, I did see Valentina perform Rach 3 in Denver last year. Six stars for the live performance, and hopefully the recording lives up to it.

    Even the Third Piano Concerto wasn’t enough for her. She followed with the Liszt/Schubert Ave Maria as an encore. Both were stunning. She owns the music.

  7. Sorry girls and guys, Nikolay Lugansky is the BEST in this stuff alongside the composer.

  8. Here’s a very different view of the CDs.

    (Unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to listen to them for myself yet. But they’re next on my list of purchases).

  9. For several days now, I felt like responding to this blog post. But I didn’t (something to do with people who live in glass houses casting stones, I suppose). And this will be my ONLY reply here about her.

    Whoever compares her playing to Ashkenazy, Richter, Horowitz or anyone else of a similar artistic stature (indeed, Rachmaninov himself has been mentioned here) needs to have a serious reality check! I must admit that I haven’t listened to her concerto discs yet. But honestly, would you pay good money for these after listening to the following YouTube clips?

    Valentina Lisitsa playing Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (live):

    Another one (same piece, same performer):

    To say the least, she takes a great deal of liberty with the written score (if you can read music, pay attention to the left hand … OMG!). There are more examples out there which I could find for those so inclined. But, as I said, I’m not going to participate in this one any longer.

    That being said, I wish Ms. Lisitsa all the best with her artistic ventures. It does take a tremendous amount of chutzpah to produce something like this, and careers are sometimes made or broken by such (or the lack thereof).

    • Robert – it seems both pointless and churlish to sound off when you admit you haven’t even listened to this recording! Do us all a favour and get in to the music first. If you still feel the same way, fair enough.

  10. OK … this wasn’t my last bit here after all. But let’s talk about another aspect of this which doesn’t really enter into the discussion of the artistic merits of this release.

    What probably bothers me most about this whole hullabaloo is the “I had to mortgage my house to pay for this recording” business. Who cares? Are we supposed to buy more CD’s because of that? And why does every review I have seen have to mention it?

    Let’s face it, vanity publishing has been around for as long as there was ever something to publish. And authors, producers, musicians and other artists have often gone terribly into debt in order to get their works published or performed. Some did it with dignity; others, not so. Look at Diaghilev, for example, and how shabbily he treated his entourage (and composers as well — Stravinsky had to wait forever to see some money at times). James Joyce was largely self-published during his lifetime. Ferdinand Hodler, the Swiss painter and sculptor, had to give paintings to friends so that he could eat. Today, his paintings bring six to seven figures at auction.

    When Kristian Zimerman wanted to do a project with nothing but Debussy (can’t remember if it was a recital tour program or a recording project), he was told outright by management that they wouldn’t finance it because nobody would come to the concerts (or buy the recording). So he did it himself. But he didn’t necessarily tell everyone about it until well after the fact (I read about it in an interview with him in the Swiss music magazine “Musik & Theater” during the early 1990′s, I think).

    When Arthur Rubinstein played certain dates, he often financed them himself up-front when he was convinced that it was either artistically or financially worthwhile, according to his memoirs.

    When Vladimir Horowitz played a recital, he took 80% of the gross box office proceeds (can’t remember the source for that one, but probably it is from Glenn Plaskin’s biography).

    With unknown artists, you have to put up a minimum guarantee to cover all expenses (including the agent, but also the rental of the hall and any publicity), and you are lucky if there is anything left to take home (after paying the agent another 15% of whatever box office there was).

    And let’s not forget that back in the early 1990′s, Deutsche Grammophon issued a recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado performing Mahler’s 8th symphony (I believe it was the 8th, but I’m not sure). They were apparently only able to recoup DM 8,000 gross proceeds from sales! Perhaps Ms. Lisitsa can do better than that with Rachmaninoff if all of her YouTube fans actually buy the recording?

    I hope sincerely that Ms. Lisitsa can recoup some of her expenses. But I feel insulted when I read such things as “Oh, I had to mortgage my house”. Lots of people, especially in the USA, are doing the same thing just so that they can send their kids to university or pay for their family’s hospital bills.

    • Göran Södervall says:

      Have no intention to objekt to Hairgrov’es view on how famous interpreters of the past and present raised money to finance more or less successful projects. But to be honest I do not care a bit about Litsina’s more unconventional way to find money for her Rachmaninov projects.

      What I am interested in how well she has managed to fulfil the dreams she talks about in the booklet. Well, having now listened quite attentively to these two CD:s I think she is quite successful, not sweeping the floor in any way with the greats such as the composer, Argerich, Michelangeli, Richter a.o but it is a great set nevertheless with rapt and sensitive orchestral playing not least important in convincing interpretations and a clear vision of how Litsina wants these concertos to sound. So summing this up I more than happily put her version on the shelf next to the brilliant pianists who have hade their go at these rich and rewarding concertos

      Goran Sodervall.

      • Derek Castle says:

        It’s ‘Lisitsa’ for Heaven’s sake – not ‘Litsina’. Try reading ‘quite attentively’ too!

        • Göran Södervall says:

          Who cares but people like you? The only one who might get offended is of course Lisitsa to have her name slightly misspelled. After all her name is the least important I suppose as it is transcribed from Cyrillic and I care more about her playing which is indeed more important to comment on.

          Göran Södervall,

        • People tend to remember the things that are important to them. If a name has some real meaning to them, at least people will remember how to spell it, no matter how hard it is to pronounce correctly.

          It could be worse (for non-Russian speaking people, that is) — check out the first prize winner of the 2012 Géza Anda piano competition: Varvara Nepomnyashchaya. This name might even be harder to remember because “Nepomnyashchaya” in Russian means something like “not being able to remember”… :)

    • Shumsky Naty says:

      Ah! what a shame!
      You are such a fine pianist yourself, but rude and uncivilized! Did anyone ever tell you not to criticize colleagues, particularly if they have done better then yourself? It might just appear that you are jealous and promoting your own name at the expense of others. I listened to your clips and they are fine. It is too bad that I learned about your name from this site, while you smear a colleague… So I suppose that it is the last time I listened to your playing.

      As for Valentina’s Rach album, I think she had outdone just about anybody but perhaps the composer himself – I can not stop listening to the CD, it is addictive. And I have collected almost all recordings of these pieces, with the possible exception of some live ones, over the past 30 years…

      • One thing is certain: Valentina Lisitsa evokes very powerful, even emotional responses through her playing — in ALL directions. That by itself is something rare today, and we all know that there is no worse playing than boring playing. When I wrote my comment, I suppose that I was caught up in one of those moments — unfortunately, not in the same way that her many fans are being swept off their feet nowadays.

        But there has to be room for all kinds of interpretations, and if a certain electric spark or emotional high (addictive?!?!) overweighs other concerns about faithfulness to the composer’s intentions, that is certainly a very valid reason to buy a recording which provides that — maybe just not for everyone. Even Horowitz had his fair share of tricks up his sleeve, if you listen carefully, e.g. in the closing section of the Finale of the Tchaikovsky 1st concerto or towards the end of Chopin’s G minor Ballade (he transformed the descending right-hand scale, if I remember correctly, into a wild arpeggio). And that bothered some people, too; others, not.

        Jealousy, or mere churlishness, as have been suggested, are certainly farthest from my mind. After all, I am at an age now where I don’t really try to advance my career anymore. My own recordings are mostly documentaries of some good times I once had (and thanks very much for the favorable comments on my playing, Mr. Shumsky). :) I do have a few issues with the way some things are marketed here (won’t go into that anymore). But my comments were based strictly on my musical sentiments, and what I had heard (or didn’t hear) in some performances, plus the fact that she was compared favorably here with some of my pianistic idols which I obviously didn’t agree with.

        I think only time will tell here — would very much like to let this rest now (if possible).

        • Derek Castle says:

          I attended her Berlin recital in February in a Philharmonie that was not sold out. Ms Lisitsa had the idea (apparently a repeat of the RAH recital) of asking the audience to vote – by holding up their programmes – on a varied programme (including the Appassionata!) or an all-Liszt programme. By a small majority, we went for the latter. No pieces of substance – a lot of Schubert song transcriptions. No Annees de Pelerinage, no Transcendental Studies, no Sonata. The longest piece was a Hungarian Rhapsody. I am not a pianist, but I have been listening to music for 60 years. My gut reaction was that I was pretty underwhelmed. Ms Lisitsa certainly has power and technique (her ‘Erlkönig’ was terrific). But I think I’ll wait until she tackles op.109-op.111 before I invest any more time/money. And ‘Ave Maria’ as an encore…..really! She doesn’t wear a sequinned dress or stoop to the ecstatic grimacing of the circus act of Lang Lang, but for an old fogey like me, there was something missing. However, one must praise her (or her agent) for not ripping off her many young fans. Tickets for the concert cost 30 euros in all areas, not bad for a capital city.

  11. Petros Linardos says:

    In all good faith, I have a question: why do you give four stars this recording four stars in the LaScena Musicale review while you give five on Sinfini?

    BTW, I am very impressed by the excerpts I heard.

  12. Excuse me, am I being a dumb soprano?

    What is wrong with releasing a disk dedicated to Rachmaninov’s complete output for Piano and Orchestra. If the recordings are good (and the reviews are) then it will sell.

    As she is pretty, what is wrong with the cover too. It appears Valentina Listista has been pretty business savvy. Good recordings, gauge the market on Youtube, ensure the cover has eye-candy.

    Now if and when I’m ready to release any commercial recordings, I’ll take a leaf out of her book. Personally I do not give a stuff about anyone pouring scorn on the idea. If it sells recordings, then this is the way to do it.

    (At present, I’ve not quite got enough material to cut a first disk, but anyone who wants to give me the opportunity would be welcome to contact me, and I will soon resolve that issue – Orchestral Accompaniment or Pianists Welcome)

    • “What is wrong with releasing a disk dedicated to Rachmaninov’s complete output for Piano and Orchestra.”

      Nothing at all … did anyone suggest otherwise?

      The somewhat rhetorical question posed at the beginning of this thread was whether or not her recordings were “a five-star wonder”.

      And there seems to be a good deal of controversy about that, depending on which reviews you read.

    • “As she is pretty, what is wrong with the cover too.”

      The cover of this release, together with that of her earlier disc from the live recital at Royal Albert Hall, unfortunately make her look a bit like a refugee from one of the “Twilight” movie series (IMHO). But I think other people were more bothered by the décolleté.

      But who cares, really?

    • Derek Castle says:

      It’s ‘Lisitsa’ for God’s sake. Perhaps she should change her name……to ‘Horowitz’?

  13. Yang Wen Li says:

    Fast and furious – Rachmaninoff turns in his grave. I do not believe that Ms. Lisitsa has what it takes to play Rachmaninoff. Fast fingers just aren’t enough. And yes, I have listened to the recordings.

  14. A lot has been written here and there about Rachmaninoff’s tempi and about how the tempi of Ms. Lisitsa’s recordings are closest to the original tempi of the recordings that Rachmaninoff himself made of the concerti and of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Many of the most critical reviews of these same recordings say that hers are too fast and, as a result, neglect the darker corners of the works. Ms. Lisitsa defends her tempi by reference to the recordings made by Rachmaninoff himself.

    I’d like to throw the following questions into this discussion:

    (1) Why didn’t Rachmaninoff put metronome markings into his concerti if his tempi were supposed to be the absolute reference?

    (2) The 78 rpm recordings made when Rachmaninoff recorded his concerti were limited to something like 4-5 minutes per side. All of the longer recordings we have today have been spliced together from the original snippets. This would also probably explain why so much of the music in his original recordings was cut. But it might also explain why so many of the tempi sound too fast and rushed — there aren’t that many places in any of these works where there are logical places to cut, and some of the tempi might have been adjusted just in order to “get through” in order to fit that section into a 4-1/2 minute 78 rpm side.

    (3) How much credit do we interpreters have to give the composers’ own recordings in regard to such things as tempo, dynamics, etc.? For example, I have heard some absolutely AWFUL renditions of Grieg’s piano pieces by the composer himself, and I am not ashamed to say so. Of course, Rachmaninoff was an outstanding pianist, certainly much better than Grieg at the keyboard (Arthur Rubinstein thought that he was even “a better pianist than composer”). But after a Hollywood Bowl performance with Horowitz playing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto (in 1940 or 1941 — ???), Rachmaninoff went on record to say that he had just heard his concerto performed just as he had ever wished, but never dared to hope for, that he would live to hear it performed that way during his lifetime.

    In this respect, I like Yuja Wang’s attitude much better than that of Ms. Lisitsa, regardless of what you might think of Ms. Wang’s interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd concerto (I like it very much, although the sound quality in this clip is pretty awful). Listen to her short interview starting at about 00:40 into this clip:

    (…and don’t miss the shot of her stiletto-heeled shoes on the pedals at 00:30 … :) )

    • “…the sound quality in this clip is pretty awful…”

      Not to mention the terribly out-of-tune Steinway… :( … probably a victim of the balmy summer outdoor weather.

    • Shumsky Nati says:

      Perhaps you should finally hear Valentina’s interpretation (you yourself said you did not?). Yuja’s tempi are very close to Valentina’s, at least in the example of the 3rd concerto you just provided. I hear a foreign accent in her phrasing throughout, which is appalling to me, but perhaps you being American can not hear that? :). Other than that big thing her playing is fine.

      • “I hear a foreign accent in her phrasing throughout, which is appalling to me…”

        I find the implications of the above statement even more appalling, assuming that you meant something similar to “you have to be German to play Beethoven well”… or did you mean something else?

        • Naty Shumsky says:

          I mean that she does not understand Russian music at all. Her Rachmaninoff recordings as well as live performances clearly demonstrate that. Her performance of Tchaikovsky Concerto is simply ridiculous. That is what I mean by that. Her Scriabin is not far off from that as well.
          Rubinstein once said: in order to perform composer’s music correctly you must be able to speak composer’s language. If I am no mistaken Rubinstein spoke some 10+ languages, many of them fluently.
          PS. As for the tempos of the 78th recordings techniques having an effect on performance I find it funny that most of the time this topic raised while talking about Rachmaninoff’s playing. As if Backhaus, Hoffmann, Rubinstein Horowitz and all others were recording on some other secret machines that had no time limitation. Just absurd!

    • Herbert Pauls says:

      You mentioned the issue of tempos on 78s. There seems to be a common concern that tempos on recordings in the 1930s were faster in order to accommodate side lengths. Often, there is no way of proving one way or another when this was actually true. But I think we must be highly skeptical of this as an all purpose explanation. The reason is that there also happen to be a great many live performances from the thirties that have come down to us (although, alas, none by Rachmaninoff himself, because he had an ironclad rule against live broadcasting). In general, live performances by pianists, such as those by Hofmann or Horowitz (including a c. 1941 Rach 3, which you may have been referring to) often demonstrated extremely fast tempos, absurdly so in cases like the 1930s Horowitz Brahms First Concerto performances with Walter and Toscanini. In general, surviving radio transcription discs were recorded in an overlapping manner, so there could be no cases of adjusting tempos to fit sides.

      In the case of Rachmaninoff, we will never know for certain. However, I do recall anecdotal evidence which indicated that Rachmaninoff was predisposed to extraordinarily fast tempos in live performances of his concertos. And then there is the cast of the Beethoven first piano concerto which he played late in his career. He told the orchestra something like (I paraphrase): “Gentlemen, since I don’t know this music very well, we will observe the metronome marking.” The marking in question was, if I recall, something like 160, which may not be absurd when we realize that Czerny prescribed 176. But such rapid tempos would be a bit of a shock to most ears today.

    • Naty Shumsky says:

      Unless you are confusing the time line, Robert, Rachmaninoff had a fabulous sense of humor: the recording of the performance you are bringing up exists – it is with Kussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. Without a doubt the worst of all known Horowitz’s performances. In the development section conductor loses soloist and Horowitz is searching for the solid ground for a number of seconds, never recovering till the cadenza. The whole performance has a sense of total lack of security and unstable tempi. Rachmaninoff of course could have recorded his set with Boston Symphony if he wanted to, but hearing performance like that makes one understand why he did not.

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