Valentina Lisitsa, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Publicity for the Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa may parade her presence on MySpace and YouTube, but everything about her Wigmore Hall recital suggested that the 19th century is her natural habitat. This had less to do with the fact that the works she played were of that era or that the centrepiece was a dazzling fantasia by that salon supremo Sigismund Thalberg than with the way she presented these works.

Musicians who free-associate in their programme notes, rather than giving sober background facts are usually a bit weird, but Lisitsa's literary thoughts were a bold attempt to get inside our heads before she'd played a note. And as she launched into the Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau, nicknamed "Little Red Riding Hood", her horror-film scenario was vividly bodied forth in two minutes of gripping music. Her arresting image of "a mighty fountain suddenly starved of water" was oddly apposite for the desolate Prelude in B minor Op 32 No 10: she let the bare chords breathe and expand, and built to a massive climactic sound. And she brought a Debussyan delicacy to the opening of its companion prelude in G major: this was jeu perl at its best.

Having proved she had a hotline to Rachmaninov, she then turned to Beethoven's Appassionata sonata, which her programme described as one of "the most anti-tyrannical statements in art". Yet here, too, the music was a pleasant surprise. At no point did she seek to offer an "original" take on this overplayed work: the playing was clean, the architecture beautifully shaped, all three movements propelled by a fizzing energy that was under total control. The challenge of Schumann's Kinderszenen, which followed, was only partially met: but if we missed the absolute precision these deceptively difficult pieces demand, they were at least delivered with a wonderfully singing tone.

On, then, to Thalberg's Grande Fantaisie sur le Barbier de Seville: this was high-octane playing with the right hand moving with the rapidity of a humming-bird's wings, but even here Lisitsa used her virtuosity to express, rather than impress. If she finally let rip with Liszt's Totentanz, then that, too, was in the spirit of the composer, bearing out her contention that this extraordinary piece could have emanated from a mid-20th century experimentalist.

Her first encore was Liszt's Liebestraum, and the second his La Campanella: in her hands both became poetry.

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