Performer spotlight: Valentina Lisitsa, the Romantic Sorceress

Recently we did a performer spotlight video on Glenn Gould, who is legendary when it comes to recordings of Bach – but unfortunately, he’s been dead quite a while.

I thought it would be fun to spotlight a performer who is alive and well, and who got her start on YouTube – Valentina Lisitsa.

We’re going to discuss her background, her journey as a musician, playing style and recordings, as well as some controversy. Let’s get into it!

Valentina Lisitsa: Background

Valentina was born in Kiev in 1973 and was a child prodigy who was playing music recitals by the age of four. Despite that, she really wanted to be a pro chess player throughout childhood.

Still, she continued to study music throughout her life, attending both the Lysenko music school for gifted children and later the Kiev Conservatory at age 17. That’s where she met her future husband, Alexei Kuznetsoff over a game of chess.

As for her parents? Her mom was a seamstress named Valentina, who hoped that Valentina would turn her music education into a teaching career. Her mom, a single parent working menial labor, wanted her to have a better life.

Valentina and Alexei (Val and Al, as fans might say) entered a Miami-based contest called “The Murray Dranoff Two Piano Competition” in 1991 and won, so they both decided to roll the dice and move to the USA to pursue a concert pianist career. The next year, 1992, they were married.

They hopped around the United States a bit, eventually settling in rural North Carolina where they could afford an old mansion big enough for their four concert grand pianos.

Valentina Lisitsa on YouTube

Valentina performed and competed for a while, but in the 2000s her performance opportunities started drying up. She was a little older and had a new baby. She was considering other career options:

“I thought, ‘Am I just going to perform for myself, or do something useful?’ I was ready to go work as a translator for the CIA. I filled out the application online, but I didn’t have the heart to press the Send button.”

She also answered a Craigslist ad for a pianist in a local retirement home, but when she contacted them, the position had already been filled.

Valentina had her husband help her film a DVD of Chopin’s 24 preludes, which they put up for sale on Amazon. The DVD was being posted illegally on YouTube, which initially enraged them. But then her videos started receiving hundreds of thousands of hits, and they decided to use the videos for promotion in order to sell – and it worked.

They are still the most-viewed set of Chopin’s preludes on YouTube.

Cover tiny file
look inside
Chopin – Preludes
Composed by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Edited by Brian Ganz. Schirmer Performance Editions. Classical. Softcover Audio Online. 96 pages. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.296523).

Later, in 2010, Valentina and Alexei pooled their resources to put together a CD of Rachmaninoff Concertos, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was an expensive gamble (they put their home on the line), but it got her a record deal (Decca Classics) in 2012.

The Royal Albert Hall offered to host Valentina’s London debut in 2012, and Decca Classics recorded it. It was her first release on the label, and also Google’s first-ever live HD stream.

By that point, Valentina had over 50 million YouTube views.

Performing career

She has since performed in many renowned venues all over the world, including Carnegie Hall, David Geffen Hall, Benaroya Hall, Musikverein and Royal Albert Hall.

In addition to performing and publishing, she also does online recitals and live streams of practice. She tried it out by setting up a webcam in her practice studio during the world cup, and streamed for 12 hours a day (her usual practice time) – she was surprised when 16,000 people watched her practice sessions.

Ukraine controversy

Valentina is yet another celebrity whose Twitter feed has been under scrutiny. Her comments about Russian and Ukrainian politics motivated the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to cancel concerts with her in 2015, saying that her tweets “crossed a line”.

The Toronto Star criticized this decision, saying that she was “scheduled to play the piano. And banning a musician for expressing “opinions that some believe to be offensive” shows an utter failure to grasp the concept of free speech.”

Lisitsa’s response to the criticism is that she uses satire and hyperbole – which inevitably doesn’t go over well in our hyper-literal, everything-is-recorded-and-can-be-used-against-you society.

Valentina Lisitsa’s Discography

Lisitsa really excels with emotive, Romantic repertoire by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninov, but her repertoire is broad and she’s done Mozart, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and contemporary composers like Philip Glass.

She can play more than 40 concertos, which is wild considering how long and complicated they tend to be.

In Lisitsa’s relatively new career, she’s already made quite the smattering of recordings. We already talked about the recording of her Albert Hall recital, as well as the Rachmaninov concertos she bet her career on.

She’s also recorded plenty of Liszt, Michael Nyman (music from The Piano and Wonderland), Schumann and Chopin’s Etudes, and Philip Glass.

She’s recorded a couple albums of duets with her husband Alexei, and has also recorded and performed with the renowned violinist Hilary Hahn.

Performance style

So what about Lisitsa as a performer?

Interestingly, she was a very shy child, terrified to speak in front of people. But she doesn’t consider piano performing anything like public speaking because when she plays, she doesn’t sense people.

In terms of composers, she would love to add more Mozart to her repertoire, but says she’ll avoid Bach “till later in my life, when I grow up. For now, my brain is running around too much in all directions.”

According to Ivan Hewett from The Daily Telegraph, “Lisitsa is a serious artist… Her essential attribute is a fevered urgency, an almost desperate desire to suck the expressive marrow from a piece.”

Another journalist, Robert Everett-Green of the Globe and Mail, says, “Lisitsa plays the piece as if the outcome were a matter of life or death. She may be the most exciting pianist you’ve never heard of.”

Her own perspective on performing:

“I’m nothing but a conduit. The music goes though my ears, my fingers… Composer is a god. Composer creates music. We’re performers. We’re just passing it on.”

My personal perspective on her playing is that it’s incredibly fluid and she has remarkable control. Her fingers move like water. There’s a delicacy to her playing, even when it’s at a fortissimo. She has a very clean style that never feels overdone or too dramatic, which can happen with a large Romantic repertoire.