A model of disciplined French pianism

Lise de la Salle, a young French pianist, plays a deeply satisfying recital of Beethoven and Prokofiev in the UW's piano series.
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French pianist Lise de la Salle

Lise de la Salle, a young French pianist, plays a deeply satisfying recital of Beethoven and Prokofiev in the UW's piano series.

Lise de la Salle, a 21-year-old pianist born in Cherbourg and trained in Paris, made her second visit to the UW's Meany Hall President's Piano series last week. It was a deeply satisfying recital.

Her program this time once again included Beethoven: the sonata Opus 81 in E flat ('ꀜLes Adieux'ꀝ) and the earlier sonata in C sharp minor evocatively but inauthentically nick-named 'ꀜThe Moonlight.'ꀝ Beethoven's sonatas were once considered an absolute staple of the piano recital repertoire. The influential early 20th-century Scottish musicologist Donald Tovey described them as 'ꀜthe musician'ꀙs Bible.'ꀝ The established great masters of the piano (Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Andras Schiff) have given series of recitals which include all 32 sonatas. But it is less common than it once was to hear individual Beethoven sonatas in programs covering other composers as well, so hearing two in the program was very welcome.

Both were given fine performances that were technically assured, thoughtful, and inward to the spirit of the music. By some standards the first movement of the Moonlight sonata might be thought reticent, and the last to lack the ultimate in tempestuous ferocity. Liszt described the charming middle movement as 'ꀜune fleur entre deux abîmes'ꀝ (a flower growing between two chasms). On this occasion neither of the chasms was as deep or as dark as they sometimes are. Even so, this was an effective performance: the moment of quiet reflection just before the final explosion in the last movement was especially remarkable.

De la Salle'ꀙs musicianly qualities were evident from the first bars of the 'ꀜLes Adieux'ꀝ sonata which began her program. The opening recitative of farewell was intense in effect, subtly nuanced in phrasing and rhythm and perfectly graded in dynamics. The transition into the dashing Allegro depicting the departure from Vienna of Beethoven's friend and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, in the face of Napoleon's invasion was masterly in its timing and its capacity to draw the audience into its silences. The slow movement provided an object lesson in intense, inward playing with no exaggeration or striving for effect.

She has a focussed, disciplined, and un-showy presence on the platform. She sits somewhat further back from the keyboard than many pianists, and eschews inessential body movement. There is no caressing of the keys, no would-be dramatic physical reactions to the music. She shows more than a trace of the highly disciplined — even severe — tradition of French piano pedagogy. But there is nothing rigid or uncommunicative about her music-making, which is marked by a complete absorption in the music she is playing. With some pianists one senses that there is both their own pianism and the music they are playing, which are sometimes at one with each other, but sometimes not. With De la Salle, there is no such dichotomy. Her pianism is simply a deeply musical reaction to what she is playing, supported by a fine technique.

After the intermission we heard the Prokofiev'ꀙs own rarely performed version for solo piano of his ballet suite 'ꀜRomeo and Juliet.'ꀝ De la Salle delivered in full the variety of moods the composer calls for — the often sardonic humor he brings to Shakespeare'ꀙs story as well as his own slightly acidic tenderness, and in the final scene the sombre and tragic denouement.


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