Piano Recital: Lise de la Salle
Beethoven / Ligeti / Brahms

Druckerei, Baden/CH, 2016-12-10

3-star rating

2016-12-18 — Original posting

Lise de la Salle (© Lynn Goldsmith)
Lise de la Salle (© Lynn Goldsmith)


The Venue

The venue for this concert was the retired print facility of the local newspaper in Baden, Switzerland—see my earlier concert reports from this venue. In this concert, the venue was filled very well, if not sold out.

Side-Stepping: An Unused Intro

I originally wrote my German review for Bachtrack under the Title “Nicht ganz wie gedruckt” (“not exactly as printed”), alluding the former designation of the concert venue. However, that title, along with the introduction in the end was discarded, as I needed to shorten my text. Here’s the translation of that introduction anyway, for whatever it is worth:

“Paper is patient”, a German saying goes. This may have been true for the output of the former print shop in this location (the local newspaper). However, now, the venue is a concert hall, and so, the issue no longer is whether the printed score (if printed notation is still used at all) is “right” or not: often enough, composers leave behind a multitude of versions and revisions, such that (often enough) ultimately it is not clear whether the score still reflects the composer’s intent.

In a concert, the question rather is, whether the music played by the musician reflects the “truth”, i.e., the composer’s intent, as much as that can be extracted (or guessed) from the notation. On the other hand, as a reviewer, I’m trying to find out and report whether an artist is playing music such that it “talks” to the audience, hence provoking an emotional response, or an “inner dialog” between the musician (or the music, or the composer) and the recipient. That result (and therefore also my perception of an artist’s playing) always also depends on the emotional state and the receptivity of the listener. This again may be influenced by the live atmosphere, i.e., how the rest of the audience reacts on the artist, and vice versa.

The Artist

Lise de la Salle (born 1988 in Cherbourg, France) gave her first concert at age 9. From 1998 on, her key teacher was Pascal Nemirovski (*1962), later, she also studied with Pierre Réach (*1948) and with Bruno Rigutto (*1945) at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris. In 2001,, she started touring internationally, as a concert pianist. 2013 / 2014, she was Artist in Residence at the Zurich Opera, where she performed and recorded all works for piano and orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) under the direction of Fabio Luisi (*1959). I have attended two of these concerts, one where she performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18, and a second one where she performed the Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, op.30 by the same composer.

This was the first concert where I experienced Lise de la Salle in a solo recital. After sitting down at the Steinway B, the pianist started off by giving some brief explanations on the two Beethoven sonatas. Did she do it to establish contact with the audience, to “break the ice”? Or maybe she needed this to “tune herself into the atmosphere in this venue”? Sadly, her words (in English, no microphone) were hardly understandable in the rear parts of the hall.There was a microphone nearby (used by the organizers, as well as for the post-concert interview): I wondered whether she did the explanations spontaneously?

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, op.2/3

The Composition

1796, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) published his first three piano sonatas as his second “opus”. The third of these sonatas is the Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, op.2/3, featuring the following movements:

  1. Allegro con brio (4/4)
  2. Adagio (2/4)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro (3/4) — Trio (3/4)
  4. Allegro assai (6/8)

The Performance

I. Allegro con brio

Right from the beginning, I noted Lise de la Salle’s somewhat soft, mellow keyboard touch. In the course of the sonata, this became firmer. However, the first movement felt like constantly alternating between carefully formed details and passages that were played rather superficially. Near the end of the exposition, there is a series of trills with acciaccatura, which Lise de la Salle played strangely detached from the trills, as if they had staccato annotation. I felt that to be somewhat odd—peculiar at the very least.

I noted a number of mishaps, slips in the first pass of the exposition. The pianist avoided these those in the second pass (expectedly at the expense of some refinement / detail), but such mishaps returned in due course. I don’t mean to be overly meticulous, or to ask for perfect playing: occasional, minor errors are always errors tolerable. However, I found the number of errors rather strange for an artist that just recently recorded all of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s works for piano and orchestra. Either the pianist was somewhat indisposed—or in the preparations for this recital she focused on the works by Ligeti and Brahms?

II. Adagio

Here, I had troubles understanding the rhythm in the last three bars of the introductory theme. Somehow, I didn’t manage to get a feel for the musical flow, the rhythmic concept. Those bars felt strangely pushed, “rhythmically displayed”. It’s OK to use agogics, of course. However, in a classical sonata by Beethoven, shouldn’t the listener be able to perceive / understand, or get a feel for the underlying note values?

III. Scherzo: Allegro — Trio

Also in the Scherzo, finding the feel for a natural musical flow appeared troublesome. I found the ritardando in front of repeat signs and double bars too strong, and there were small ruptures in the flow in-between themes and formal segments. Finally, the tempo in the Trio to me didn’t appear to have any intelligible relationship to the tempo in the Scherzo—it felt like a foreign body in that movement. Note that Beethoven didn’t specify any tempo alteration or change in the time signature for that part.

IV. Allegro assai

The Allegro assai is a virtuosic movement. I found it to be the best, the most compelling part of the interpretation, even though the tempo was fairly challenging: the fast segments were just about playable on the modern piano mechanics.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, op.111

The Composition

Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, op.111 is Beethoven‘s last work in this genre. He wrote it in 1821/22. In terms of compositions for the piano, only the Diabelli Variations (op.120) and a number of Bagatelles (op.119, op.126, op.129) were to follow. Formally, the sonata op.111 features just two movements:

  1. Maestoso (4/4) — Allegro con brio ed appassionato (4/4)
  2. Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile (9/16)

For a more detailed description and additional links see my CD review on recordings of this sonata. In addition, I have reviewed a performance of the sonata op.111 in a concert in the Tonhalle Zurich, on 2014-10-21.

The Performance

I. Maestoso — Allegro con brio ed appassionato

Beethoven opens the dark, earnest first movement with harsh double-punctuated notes. Lise de la Salle played these rather softly, the short note values slightly over-accentuated, almost like syncopes. After this introduction, a regular sonata form follows, Allegro con brio ed appassionato, with fugato (fugue-like) segments. Here, the artist passionately threw herself into the dramatic semiquaver passages—though she was rather liberal in performing Beethoven’s sforzato marks. Once more, I messed the sense for a natural, musical flow. The linking between the phrases, in particular, between the fast segments and the punctuated inserts, wasn’t always ideal.

II. Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

As unfortunately several (if not many) other artists, too, Lise de la Salle started the second movement, the Arietta theme, with a misunderstanding. Beethoven’s tempo annotation is not 100% clear, though, as Beethoven did not apply a clarifying comma. The proper way to read this can really only be Adagio, molto semplice e cantabile, i.e., calm (not slow!!), but very simple and singable. The cantabile implies playing this as a singable melody line, a cantilena.

Here, the tempo appeared to be read Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile, i.e., “very slow” (slow, not calm: another, frequent mistake!). This reading defeats the “simple and singable” part. Simply put: the tempo was vastly too slow and static. Consequently, the melody line was overstretched (the listener easily loses track of the melody) and definitely far from a singable cantilena. Sure, there is a certain danger of indulging in these soothing harmonies!

It’s impossible to play the entire movement at that slow tempo. Not unexpectedly, the first variation therefore continued at a substantially faster pace. Overall, the interpretation of the variations was certainly better than the initial Arietta—though I still wasn’t entirely happy with this: already in the first variation I noted several errors, later, there were also short dropouts. Also, the linking of the variation segments didn’t always appear entirely natural / harmonic in the tempo (or tempo relations): I missed the big, logical / musical arch.

After the Intermission…

I would call the first half only partially successful (or a partial failure). Keep in mind that this is my personal impression. Not everybody felt that way: my neighbor asked me at the end of op.111: “And? Are you as overwhelmed as I am?” …

In any case, with the Intermission, Lise de la Salle switched to music of the 20th century. She again started with some brief explanation (again without microphone), focusing on Ligeti’s Études 4 and 2. She claimed that Étude 13 does not require explanations.

Ligeti: 3 Études from “18 Études pour piano

This is the second time within less than two months that I’m encountering an excerpt from the “18 Études pour piano” by György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) in concert. The last time was when Pietro De Maria (*1967) played the Études 8, 5, and 13, in a recital at the ETH Zurich, on 2016-10-25.

My impression was that with the Ligeti Études, Lise de la Salle instantly felt more in her element, in her world. Her playing gained clarity and mastership. The mishaps were (virtually) gone, despite the immense technical demands in these pieces.

How did Lise de la Salle play Ligeti? From listening to other artists I expected the three pieces that she selected to be more dry, more percussive. The way I heard it, de la Salle moved these pieces rather into the context of the Second Viennese School: I felt more legato, more “meaty” playing. Other artists exert more “esoteric dryness” in this music. That’s just a characterization, not a rating, of course.

Étude No.4: Fanfares (Vivacissimo, molto ritmico, con alegria e slancio, from Book I, 1985)

Wikipedia states about this Étude: Melody and accompaniment frequently exchange roles in this polyrhythmic study which features (…) an ostinato in 8/8 time, dividing the bar of 8 eighth notes into 3 + 2 + 3. As for Lise de la Salle’s playing: see the general remarks just above. The main difficulty here seems to be to let the ostinato run through seamlessly (also through hand switching), while exerting vastly varying dynamics and independent rhythms in the other hand.

Étude No.2: Cordes à vide (“Empty chords”, Andantino rubato, molto tenero, from Book I, 1985)

The main “theme” in this Étude is a sequence of descending, open fifths, reminding of the empty strings in tuning a string element (of the violin family). There, the impression of legato playing is intended, as de la Salle used the sustain pedal almost throughout, causing the tones to flow into each other. Over major parts, she played all p, avoiding rhythmic harshness. In this performance, I found this a quite atmospheric piece that one could indulge on while watching out for hidden melodies and melody fragments.

Étude No.13: L’escalier du diable (“The Devil’s Staircase”, from Book II, 1988 – 1994)

For some information on this Étude see the review from the concert at the ETH Zurich on 2016-10-25. As pointed out there, this Étude includes a singular, unique feature in music literature, in that it ends in a culminating ffffffff chord in the extremes of the keyboard. That chord is then held with the sustain pedal, for as long as possible. On 2016-10-25, I heard it resonate for almost a minute (!). Not every piano delivers that much lasting resonance, but still, I felt that Lise de la Salle quenched it a little early. Apart from that, also in this Étude I had the impression of a more “fleshy” interpretation / articulation than other artists—but I’m not the person to qualify this in terms of authenticity.

Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op.24

The Composition

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed his 25 Variations and Fugue for Piano on a Theme by Handel, op.24 in 1861. As a composition, it is a true masterpiece (some people put it on a par with compositions such as Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations). Its popular, baroque theme is taken from the Harpsichord Suite Vol.2, No.1 in B♭ major, HWV 434 by George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759). Brahms uses Handel’s theme to develop a highly virtuosic and technically demanding set of variations, culminating in a fugue, lasting around 25 minutes overall:

The Structure

Aria (4/4)
Var.1 (4/4)
Var.2: animato (4/4)
Var.3: p, dolce (4/4)
Var.4: risoluto (4/4)
Var.5: espressivo (4/4)
Var.6: legato, p sempre (4/4)
Var.7: con vivacità (4/4)
Var.8 (4/4)
Var.9: poco sostenuto (4/4)
Var.10: energico (4/4)
Var.11: p, dolce (4/4)
Var.12: soave (4/4)
Var.13: Largamente, ma non più (4/4)
Var.14: sciolto (4/4)
Var.15 (4/4)
Var.16: p, ma marcato (4/4)
Var.17: più mosso (4/4)
Var.18: grazioso (4/4)
Var.19: leggiero e vivace (12/8)
Var.20: p, legato (4/4)
Var.21: p, dolce (4/4)
Var.22: p (4/4)
Var.23: p, vivace e staccato (12/8)
Var.24: p (12/8)
Var.25: ff (4/4)
Fuga (4/4)

The Performance

Lise de la Salle explained that Brahms’ “Handel Variations” are very near and dear to her heart. Indeed, it was obvious that she feels at home with this music. Her articulation was clear and accurate, the interpretation of the variations was vivid and engaged:

Variations 1 – 8

  • Already the first variation clearly set itself off from the theme, with its witty syncopes and the demisemiquaver garlands at the end of each section;
  • in variation 2, the middle voice got adequate attention between the quavers in the bass and the quaver triplets in the descant.
  • variation 3 was maybe a little too handsome for dolce, but good in general, but
  • I really liked the risoluto aspect in variation 4, with its forceful and virtuosic octave and chord chains.
  • Variation 5 (espressivo) felt like an improvisation, very atmospheric.
  • Variation 6 is a canon in parallel octaves—maybe growing a bit big for the sempre p annotation?
  • The galloping “rider” variation 7 (con vivacità) was fun and well-characterized. Personally, I would have preferred less of a (short) disruption at the double bars—on the other hand, this clarified the structure to the listener.
  • The galloping continues seamlessly in the ostinato rhythm on B♭ (and F) in variation 8.

Lise de la Salle played the theme and the first 8 variations as a single, dramatic build-up, then—after a very short halt—made variation 9 feel like a fresh start:

Variations 9 – 18

  • Variation 9 (poco sostenuto) is entirely different in character—like a series of sf accents, each followed by a restraining series of decrescendo chords, leading to the next accent. My only criticism here is that I’d prefer the triplets to be more even, less inégal.
  • Variation 10 feels like a logical, dramatic incrementation after 9.
  • I liked the harmonious flow in variation 11, and the attention given to the middle / secondary voice.
  • Very nice: the short motifs, like responding bird calls, in variation 12.
  • Variation 13: the quaver triplets were ok, the semiquaver triplets again had a strong tendency towards inégal playing.
  • Is there a more typically Brahmsian variation than number 14? The annotation sciolto according to the books means “light, free and easy; without strictness or legato“. Joyful playing!
  • Variation 15 feels like a logical continuation. The artist made the ascending octave interjections stand out; this caused some disruption in the flow, but may be due to technical demands.
  • Variation 16 was better in that respect—though here, the interjections are asynchronous, separate in each hand, hence the flow was much more continuous.
  • The variations 17 and 18 turn towards a more playful, light attitude—though both are anything but easy or trivial to play!

To me, this felt like another “dramatic / logical subunit” in Brahms’ composition. The last subset covers again the wide spectrum of Brahms’ pianistic means:

Variations 19 – 25

  • Variation 19 with its monotonous, punctuated rhythm and the mordent on every rhythmic accent made me think of Jean-Philippe Rameau—it certainly evokes a baroque feeling!
  • The following variation 20 (legato) is introverted, pensive, more classical-romantic in attitude, dynamically very differentiated, well-realized here!
  • Variation 21 progresses much further, feels almost impressionistic, leading into
  • the playful variation 22, and onto
  • the virtuosic staccato in variation 23 (vivace e staccato). Very impressive!
  • In variation 24, Lise de la Salle’s had reached a tempo so fast that the semiquaver chains started to blur.
  • The artist also was very impressive in mastering the horrendous technical challenges in variation 25 and in the subsequent fugue.

That last set again forms a dramatic build-up. The fugue takes a fresh start, but still is a dramatic continuation of the preceding variations, technically extremely demanding, drawing on the artist’s physical forces. To me, Lise de la Salle’s interpretation of the fugue was very impressive, with a certain tendency towards occasional romanticisms. It was more of an expressive-dramatic interpretation than a dry, analytical one.

Overall, Lise de la Salle managed to tie the variations into impressive, big arches, and to create a harmonious flow across these 25 minutes of very high technical challenges. A very impressive performance and interpretation!

Encore 1 — Rachmaninoff: Etude-Tableau in C minor, op.39/1

Brahms’ variation set is almost a single, big build-up, culminating in a glorious, enthralling fugue — needless to state that it evoked strong applause by the audience. Lise de la Salle responded with two encores. She started off with a composition by one of her favorite composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943): the highly virtuosic Etude-Tableau in C minor, op.39/1. As this didn’t seem enough, she followed up with

Encore 2 — Debussy: Préludes, livre I, No.4, “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir

For a French artist, adding an encore by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) seemed natural. Lise de la Salle selected the fourth piece from Debussy’s first book of Préludes, with the title “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air).


During the intermission, the Steinway B-211 received a short tune-up. Still, particularly in the second encore, the tuning seemed clearly to have degraded. I suspect that the main culprit in this were the pieces by Ligeti. Interestingly, in the Brahms variations, a degradation in tuning only started to show up towards the end, but the big emotions in this composition over-played minor tuning impurities.

I understand that (and why) Lise de la Salle wanted to play the Brahms variations (which, as she stated, are very close to her heart) at the end of her official program. On the other hand, Ligeti’s Étude No.13 would have been just as effective as a recital culmination and ending as the Brahms, hence avoiding tuning issues in subsequent pieces. In addition: neither the Brahms variations, nor the Ligeti Études really call for an encore, I think. Personally, I would have preferred traveling back home with the strong impressions from Brahms’ variation set!


For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.

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