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Classical Album Of The Week: Travel The World With French Pianist Lise de la Salle, And Bring Your Dancing Shoes!

At a time in which we’ve been largely deprived of two of life’s great privileges — international travel and the chance to dance collectively — Lise de la Salle’s dazzling new album When Do We Dance? miraculously captures the essence of both.

The 29-year-old French pianist’s latest project, released in June on the label Naive, features playing that is as fleet-footed as it is fleet-fingered, juxtaposing rich regional styles of dance music that developed in six separate locales between 1850 and 1950.

The program begins in America, where de la Salle trains her focus on the jaunty rhythms of ragtime in selections by George Gershwin, Art Tatum, William Bolcom, and Fats Waller.

Her sly sense of humor is the perfect match for the music’s winking syncopations — I couldn’t help but chuckle at the Vaudevillian panache she lends to Tatum’s exceptionally virtuosic arrangement of the Vincent Youmans tune “Tea for Two.”

The fun and games take a more somber turn in the album’s second section, when de la Salle whisks us south to Argentina for the sensuous, slinking tangos of Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera. Her chameleon-like ability to darken her tone is strikingly displayed in the second of Ginastera’s three Danzas argentinas, Op. 2, a haunting “saudade” suffused with shadow and suspense.

After a whirlwind trip to Spain for a feisty reading of the “Fire Dance” from Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, de la Salle settles into the album’s fourth and longest section, set in her native France. From the opening notes of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, it’s evident that she’s glad to be home, luxuriating in the creature comforts of the composer’s urbane extended harmonies and elegant Viennese pastiche. Following brief catch-ups with Debussy and Saint-Saëns, we’re again zipped into a suitcase and taken on the road, now bound for Hungary.

In Budapest, de la Salle treats us to a zingy performance of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. Informed equally by Bartok’s ethnomusicological studies and his superb pianism, the Dances are another fabulous vehicle for de la Salle’s deft technique and interpretive generosity.

The grand tour ends in Russia, home to three composers whose styles were fearlessly original, yet also borrowed liberally from other musical traditions. In Stravinsky’s Tango, echoes of the album’s Argentinian section emerge. Scriabin’s lilting Waltz in A-flat has a decidedly French feel to it (it’s an intriguing foil to the Saint-Saëns Waltz that appears earlier in the program), while the album’s closer, Rachmaninoff’s Polka italienne, makes no attempt to hide its original inspiration: an organ grinder the composer encountered while ambling the streets of Pisa.

“Great dancers are not great because of their technique,” wrote the American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, “they are great because of their passion.” While de la Salle’s technique is beyond extraordinary, this album is ultimately distinguished by the overflowing passion she lavishes on this repertoire, her careful curation of it, and the effortlessness with which she makes these dances whirl and twirl from the keyboard.

Zev is thrilled to be WRTI’s classical program director, where he hopes to steward and grow the station’s tremendous legacy on the airwaves of Greater Philadelphia.