J.S.Bach, Goldberg Variations,
Two waltzes by Chopin (op. 69, nos. 1 and 2) followed the Ravel, which by that point had lasted about long enough. The well-known first waltz in A-flat from 1835 was no challenge for Lifschitz's finger virtuosity and was delivered in a lightweight rendition with a limping rubato, while the 1829 waltz no. 2 (B minor) sounded more like an introductory work for a piano student. If I had to blame anyone other than myself for that perception, it would more likely be Chopin than his interpreter.
The Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat, op. 61, written in the dusk of Chopin's life, was fortunately not plagued by the Chopin-the-wilting-flower attitude that so often distorts his works into fragile piano whispers. Instead, Mr. Lifschitz dug into the New York Steinway, much to the benefit of Chopin and the audience. I could still have taken more bite in the softer passages and skipped the self-consciously slow opening, but in a concert performance the result was very satisfying.
A comment from Washington Performing Arts Society President Neale Perl announced the opening of the new Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda (the politically correct name for Rockville) that will bring such luminary performers as Itzhak Perlman, the Emerson String Quartet, and Orpheus to suburbanites, all courtesy of the WPAS.
Then followed some stunning Liszt in the form of the Hungarian's Ballade No. 2 in B Minor and the Six Grand Etudes after Paganini. The ballade, perhaps an 1848 homage to Liszt's soon-to-be-dead friend Chopin (as Eric Bromberger's program notes suggest), was played every bit as tempestuously as one could wish for. The 1832 études, performed after some waiting and the consequent request that the coughing audience members please excuse themselves (none did, but there was great murmuring and everyone tried to get a last, juicy cough out), are some of Liszt's more difficult (indeed sometimes gratuitously difficult) works, even in their 1851 modification.
It is the showmanship of Paganini transcribed for piano, literally so, in that the études are based on five of Paganini's 24 Caprices for Solo Violin and the last movement of the second violin concerto (Etude No. 3). With fleet fingers, a wide palette of tonal colors, an impressive expressive scale, and redoubtable technical ability, he made the most of these works when it would have been impressive alone that someone can play all the notes right. Those performances alone were worth the price of admission, and they brought the remarkable cough-restrained house down.
Romanian Christmas carols by Béla Bartók were a most welcome and conveniently seasonally appropriate encore. For someone who can't take even one more Christmas-themed piece with jingles or bells in it, it was a godsend. For those who don't like Bartók much, it was a chance to reconsider and recant. The carols are a gorgeous introduction to Bartók's work and style without the scary dissonance. Even after the most impressive Liszt, this was the highlight of my afternoon. The second encore was the seldom heard Beethoven Polonaise, typical Beethoven over a flavor of Haydn and darn pretty. It seemed a soothing dessert after much rambunctious virtuosity.