At 27, fast-rising pianist Lise de la Salle is already marking her 15th anniversary as a professional soloist, a milestone even she finds a little hard to believe. “It’s crazy,” she said. “It sounds absolutely nuts when I hear that, but it is the truth.”
De la Salle dates her career to her concerto debut in 2001, when she stumbled into an appearance with an orchestra in Avignon, France. The ensemble had scheduled a veteran keyboardist for two successive programs, but he was only able to perform one of the concerts. So the orchestra had to scramble to find a replacement. After asking several other performers, officials finally called de la Salle, who gamely stepped in as soloist for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. “I don’t know how they finally called my house, but that’s how it happened and then I did it,” she said. Later, that same year, she made her Paris recital debut at the Louvre and toured with the Orchestre National d’Île de France.
The next big career step for the French-born pianist, who appeared July 23 at the Ravinia Festival with conductor James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will come March 6, when she makes her debut on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series.
Born in Cherbourg in 1988, de la Salle grew up in a musical family and began studying piano at age 4. By age 9, she had already presented her first concert during a live broadcast on Radio-France. At 13, she leap-frogged over many older students and won an audition to the “post-graduate” division of the prestigious Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, studying with Bruno Rigutto. Another of her other teachers along the way was noted French pianist Geneviève Joy, the wife of composer Henri Dutilleux.
For the most part, de la Salle’s career has followed a gradual upward trajectory since her 2001 debut, which led to her signing with a manager and releasing her first album a year later on the Naïve label. But one key boost came in 2005 with her second compact disc, which combined works by Franz Liszt and J.S. Bach. It was named recording of the month and editor’s choice in the August 2002 issue of Gramophone magazine, bringing the pianist unprecedented international attention. “That’s really the moment when my manager started to call me more,” she said. “We had more concerts, and more important series and more serious presenters were calling.”
De la Salle’s most recent recording was just released: a three-CD set of Sergei Rachmaninov’s complete works for piano and orchestra with the Philharmonia Zürich and conductor Fabio Luisi. The works – four concertos plus the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – were recorded during five concerts in 2013-2015, when de la Salle was artist-in-residence at the Opernhaus Zürich, where Luisi serves as general music director. (The recently renamed Philharmonia is the opera’s orchestra.) “That was a very intense project,” de la Salle said, “because we recorded live. The dress rehearsal was recorded for safety and then [we had] one shot, and that was it. So it was a real challenge, especially with that kind of repertoire.”
She had previously worked with Luisi, who serves as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, including a concert in New York City in 2011 with the Vienna Symphony that featured Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. “Lise de la Salle,” wrote New York Times music critic Allan Kozinn, “matched Mr. Luisi’s penchant for touching on extremes. Her account of the solo line was alternately dreamy and ferocious, and entirely convincing, both on its own terms and in the frame Mr. Luisi provided.”
De la Salle believes Luisi and she share a similar approach to Rachmaninov, which she described as paring the concerto to its essence and bringing an almost “sober” quality to it. “You hear it [performed] in so many ways,” she said, “and you hear it overplayed and with a lot of things added to the music. And for me, it’s a big loss.” Because of the success of that collaboration, she jumped at the chance when she got the call about performing more Rachmaninov with Luisi in Zurich.
As that project made clear, she has managed to avoid the stereotypes that sometimes surround French pianists, who are often expected to stick to the music of such Gallic composers as Claude Debussy, Erik Satie or Maurice Ravel and perform little else. To avoid that trap, de la Salle deliberately shunned playing much French music, but at the same time, her musical tastes ran in other directions, anyway. She prefers the German Romantics as well as Russian composers like Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.
That said, she was schooled in Ravel and Debussy, and often includes some of their works on her programs both to satisfy her own enjoyment of the music and to keep presenters happy. “I’m happy to play this card and to play the game of the French pianist playing some French music,” she said. “There are worse things than having to play some Ravel or Debussy.”
For her SCP recital in March, she will offer one of her favorite programs. It focuses on piano transcriptions, beginning with Italian pianist-composer Ferrucio Busoni’s famed reworking of Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin and ending with Liszt’s arrangement of five vocal works. Although popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, transcriptions fell out of favor later in the 20th century when they became regarded as inauthentic. But in today’s more open-minded classical world, artists like de la Salle have no qualms about returning to them. “I think especially with the piano, [transcriptions are] an amazing way to explore music that normally pianists would not be able to play, like lieder or opera or symphonic works, or any kind of pieces not originally written for the instrument.”
At the same time, de la Salle is fascinated with how composers like Busoni or Liszt take an existing masterwork and add a new dimension without changing the atmosphere or feel of the original. She pointed to Busoni’s take on the Chaconne. “This is definitely Bach’s music,” she said, “so you have all the architecture, all the structure, all the power of Bach, but expressed in an almost Romantic and virtuosic way.”
Following such a powerful work, de la Salle believes that both she and the audience need something lighter: Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, a 1908 suite of three pieces for solo piano, each based on a poem from a collection by Aloysius Bertrand. “I also enjoy a lot exploring the sound possibilities of the instrument, because I think often people don’t realize how many colors and variations are possible on the piano,” she said. “I think French music is perfect for exploring all those different sounds on the piano.”
The second half will be devoted to works by Liszt, a composer whom de la Salle focused on earlier in her career, including a 2011 album devoted to his music with nearly all of the selections to be featured at Symphony Center. Though she plays less Liszt than in the past, he remains important to her. Often heard is the composer’s dazzling Sonata in B Minor, but she prefers his After a Reading of Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, which is also known simply as the Dante Sonata. “The B Minor Sonata, of course, is a total masterpiece, but I was more attracted by the Dante Sonata, which is a little bit shorter and expresses things that are for me even deeper. It explores different sides of his music, and it was more interesting to go in that direction.”
Rounding out the recital will be the five transcriptions, starting with the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, K. 626, and ending with Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s famed opera, Tristan und Isolde. “At the beginning, I didn’t think anybody, even Liszt, would be able to transcribe it in a magnificent way,” she said. “I couldn’t even conceive that it would sound well on a piano because it is such an orchestral piece, so I was totally amazed when I discovered the piece by Liszt and discovered that it could work.”
The program pulls the performer and listener in “many, many different directions,” she said. “It’s really intense for me as a player, but it’s also very intense for the audience, because there is no rest. If you are really into the music, you feel exhausted at the end, even if you didn’t play, because it’s so intense, it’s so charged emotionally.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.