Pianist Elisso Virzaladze performed Sunday in St. Paul for the Chopin Society.
BY LARRY FUCHSBERG
Elisso Virzaladze is a copy editor’s nightmare — I’ve seen at least three different transliterations of her Georgian family name — but there was nothing vague about her performance at her Frederic Chopin Society recital Sunday at Sundin Hall in St. Paul. Comparisons across the decades are unreliable, but in the afterglow of the event I’m inclined to regard it as the best piano recital I’ve ever heard.
Born in Tbilisi in 1942, Virzaladze studied in Moscow with the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, who also taught Sviatoslav Richter. Yet she’s been known to stress her autodidactic side: “I never had a real mentor,” she told an interviewer. “I studied everything myself and learned from my mistakes.”
Be that as it may, her playing epitomizes a grand, almost extinct Russian school. Nothing on Sunday showed this more clearly than her opening Mozart group: the Fantasie, K.475 and the Sonata, K. 457, both of them in portentous, proto-Beethovenian C minor. Pedaling generously, unafraid to exploit the resources of a modern Steinway, Virzaladze gave small gestures unaccustomed weight and unexaggerated fullness of tone. At times she deliberately de-synchronized her hands. This is an old expressive device, audible on many early piano recordings but generally scorned today. It can easily seem a mannerism, or worse. But not with Virzaladze, who handled it throughout with becoming subtlety.
From these beginnings, Virzaladze’s recital just kept getting better. Her Chopin — first, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, then, as encores, the A-minor Mazurka, Op. 68, No. 2 and the A-flat Waltz, Op. 34, No. 1 — should have gained her honorary Polish citizenship on the spot. Prokofiev’s Second Sonata was rhythmically explosive, with a vibrant Horowitzian clangor. And Schumann’s glorious, Beethoven-haunted C-major Fantasie justified her reputation as the consummate Schumann player. At the close of the final movement, her hands hovered over the keys a few extra seconds, as if the end had come too quickly. It had.
Video shows Virzaladze playing Schumann's Kreisleriana, Op. 16.