Lise de la Salle tells keyboard love stories at Phillips

Mon Jan 16, 2017 at 12:03 pm

Lise de la Salle performed a recital at the Phillips Collection Sunday afternoon.

Lise de la Salle came to prominence as a child prodigy, but she has held the spotlight in adulthood as a mature musician of considerable expressive range as well as technical fortitude.

The French pianist has performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra twice in the last decade, but her most recent solo recital in the area was in 2007. On Sunday afternoon she ended that drought with a concert at the Phillips Collection, a winning combination of music about the excesses of love, as she put it, with pieces by Liszt, Schumann, and Prokofiev.

On the second half, de la Salle returned to her extraordinary interpretation on Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, which she recorded for the Naïve label in 2007. In introductory comments on the piece, she related the ten excerpts, put together by the composer to introduce listeners to his full ballet score, to the play by Shakespeare. Her playing suggested that she is at least familiar with the ballet, but if she has not seen it, getting familiar with the choreography would likely deepen her already profound understanding of this music. For example, her only misjudgment of tempo, in the first piece (“Folk Dance”) was undeniably exciting, but when the faster runs appeared later in the movement de la Salle had a harder time maintaining the speed.

In other movements, like the second (“Scene”), de la Salle kept the tempo more in control, in order to draw out the biting, dissonant harmonic clashes. The third movement (“Minuet”) was also stately, again to sharpen the music’s sardonic edge, part of a Soviet-era critique of the old hereditary nobility represented by Juliet’s parents. Airiness and speed enlivened the flighty music for the young Juliet in the fourth movement, with its flighty scalar motifs and elegant hand crossings, enhanced by excellent variety of touch and tone color in the slower middle section. A broader tempo allowed de la Salle to give the fifth movement (“Masquers”) weight and acid sting. A similar grotesque effect came across in the famous Dance of the Knights (here called “Montagues and Capulets”), music and choreography emblematic of the violence directed at women in the ballet.

The seventh movement (“Friar Laurence”) and the eighth movement (“Mercutio”) were a study in contrasts: the former was contemplative and tender, with an exquisite legato touch in the left hand melody; the latter a manic galop for Mercutio’s fight with Tybalt. De la Salle described the ninth movement (“Dance of the Lilies”) as a sort of ordinary piece, and she played it in a somewhat slow, deliberate way. In the ballet the agonizing high melody of this music is heard in the scene just before Juliet’s family discovers her apparently dead body. The tenth movement (“Romeo and Juliet before parting”) comes from the ballet’s stunning conclusion, as the distraught Romeo picks up the limp, apparently dead body of Juliet and dances with it. De la Salle used a heavy foot on the pedals to make the opening section into a haze of sound, taking her time with the details to make a compelling end to the story.

Her performance of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, in the middle of this recital, could have benefited from that stronger narrative sense (the piece figures on her most recent disc, devoted to this composer). De la Salle easily mastered the piece’s technical challenges, with velvety left-hand chordal figuration in the first movement, for example, but the variety of touch was too limited, tending toward a hammered attack on the melodic line.

A free sense of rhythm made the second movement more rhapsodic, and the impetuous quality of her interpretation was brash and bracing. The heroic section (“Durchaus energisch”) of this movement proved thrilling, with the martial dotted rhythms taken in strict tempo. She struggled with the narrative thread of the piece in the third movement, which wanders through all sort of harmonic areas, unable to make it into a coherent story line.

It made sense for de la Salle to move the set of three Liszt transcriptions to the position of concert opener. In the arrangements of two Schumann songs, “Widmung” and “Frühlingsnacht,” the melody of the song was somewhat lost amid too much figuration. In this set she was strongest in the dramatic version of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, minimizing the admittedly kitschy tremolos in the opening section but then going for the broadest orchestral sweep later. It was an ecstatic mixture of love and death that came back to mind at the end of the recital, with the conclusion of the Romeo and Juliet pieces. Rachmaninoff’s C minor Étude-Tableau (op. 39, no. 1) provided one last shot of adrenaline as an encore.

Two weeks of Bach for solo string instruments begin with violinist Isabelle Faust 4 p.m. January 22.

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