French pianist Lise de la Salle won recognition at age 16 for her Bach and Liszt recordings. She had, seven years before, played a live broadcast on Radio France as a nine-year-old. By the age of 20, she’d earned more acclaim for recordings of Liszt, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich that showcased a remarkably sensitive and precise style. De la Salle, now 29, will be the guest artist for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s four performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, a program that also includes Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. It runs today through Sunday.
This guest appearance also represents a return to collaboration with Italian-born guest conductor Fabio Luisi, with whom de la Salle performed at the London Symphony Orchestra. Luisi invited de la Salle to be the first artist in residence for the Zurich Opera, where she recorded the complete works of Rachmaninoff for piano and orchestra. Their decade of collaboration, encompassing Beethoven, Chopin, and Saint-Saens as well, have spanned three of five continents, she says, laughing.
As for lovers of Beethoven, the Piano Concerto No. 4 has what de la Salle describes as “that deep inner energy and love of life that you always have in his music.” Pianist Mitsuko Uchida once spoke in an interview of the fourth concerto’s “unbelievable spirituality,” a search for the light. “Spirituality with a very concrete, a very grounded energy for, and in, and towards life,” de la Salle chimes in.
“That first chord of G major, and this tonality of G major [in general], it’s full of life. It has a certain peace in it,” she says of the concerto’s striking first notes. The orchestra picks up and mimics the theme almost immediately, but those notes set up a powerful dynamic between piano and orchestra.
“I try not to think too much. Each time I go on stage, all the thinking, all the brain work is supposed to have been done, to be clear. And so, what I try to do is to enter that world of music, where you don’t really have to think. […] I think lots of artists these days are giving themselves a little bit too much importance. But at the end of the day, we are just a link between the composer and the audience, the people we are playing it for. I’m with both sides: I’m with the composer and the music; and on the other side, I am with the audience. I can deliver to the audience, and there is the feedback and the emotion, and you share that.”
“I remember Dallas having a great hall, supportive and caring,” she adds.
De la Salle’s primary technical concern is always clarity. “I want my music to be clear and understandable. And a good reflection of what the composer wanted,” she says.
Extracting the message, meanwhile, is something for which she has been praised. Her words about the concerto read like the most compelling program notes. “It brings light into your life, this piece,” she says. “The first movement is big and powerful, not because of strength, but natural flow, like nature. The second movement is a real fight between the orchestra and the piano. The orchestra is massive, and the piano is tender and begging, and there is this kind of desperate hope in it. I’m not sure if they agree in the end. Maybe there is peace in the final note. The third movement is joy and jokes. Life is back and full of energy, and it’s full of great rhythms.” The energy is contagious, she says. To move between the piece’s sections— the second movement’s dynamic highs or the final rondo, played vivace—requires great agility and precision. These are de la Salle’s hallmarks.
As for her most recent recordings, de la Salle is on tour for her album Bach Unlimited. “It’s a very personal album,” she says. “I wanted to express the idea that Bach never really left us.” Her homage, taking the form of a smart and thought-provoking romp through carefully selected pieces across four centuries, is the result.