Pianist Lilya Zilberstein dazzles with rarely-heard Chopin
A Vancouver Chopin Society presentation. At the Magee Theatre Auditorium on Friday, November 18
At least a decade ago, I received a CD of Edvard Grieg’s lone piano concerto with the Gothenburg Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I’d never heard of the pianist, Lilya Zilberstein, but then I’d never heard such freshness brought to a performance of as old a warhorse as the Grieg either. I slapped five stars on it, still wondering who this woman was, and put it in a repeat-play spot on the record shelf.
It was some time before she visited Vancouver and when it happened I missed it, but she wasn’t alone when she came. She was partnering the virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov. That seemed strange because based on what I’d heard, she didn’t seem like a support player. Having her accompany seemed like putting a racehorse in a role other than its own. But on Friday, the president of the Vancouver Chopin Society, Iko Bylicki, had the good sense to book her and her alone. I’m very glad he did and I was far from the only one.
The Magee Theatre Auditorium was packed, and not just by Vancouverites. I chatted with a woman who’d come up from Minneapolis and said she followed Zilberstein wherever she could. This sounded like something you’d hear from a Martha Argerich groupie, and guess what? Zilberstein is one of Martha’s favorite collaborators and they get together a lot. Some say Zilberstein is even the superior player. Vancouver Symphony Orchestra president and CEO Jeff Alexander was also there.
The concert was incredible. Frédéric Chopin is the main point, of course, of the Vancouver Chopin Society, and the entire first half was Chopin. But it was far from commonly heard Chopin; it was the Chopin you never hear, and there is evidently a lot of it. Mainly what she played was young Chopin, before he’d developed his signature style, like his gracefully dancing rubato. There were pieces that I didn’t know existed, like his Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1, written when he was a 15-year-old high-school student, yet astonishing even so.
I’d never even heard the first of his three piano sonatas, which is actually a beautiful piece and said to be very difficult. But this was Zilberstein and there was evidently no difficulty for her, except for the maybe two notes she missed in the Ludwig van Beethoven “Appassionata” (Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57), and that was epic. She is an astoundingly subtle musician, which means she makes her points modestly, without calling attention to herself. I don’t know when I’ve heard greater independence of the left and right hand, for example. She played everything from memory.
Zilberstein was born in Moscow, attended the Gnessin Pedagogical Institute of Music, and moved to Hamburg in 1990, where she lives with her husband and two sons. The sons, aged 15 and 20, are both pianists and said to be making international noises of their own.