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First Listen: Valentina Lisitsa, 'Chasing Pianos'

Valentina Lisitsa's new <em>Chasing Pianos</em> features Michael Nyman's music for the Oscar-winning film <em>The Piano</em>.
Courtesy of the artist
Valentina Lisitsa's new Chasing Pianos features Michael Nyman's music for the Oscar-winning film The Piano.

Music is an aural medium, but the two musicians represented on this album have careers defined, at least in part, by visuals. Valentina Lisitsa, the 44-year-old Ukrainian-born pianist, revived her stalled career by uploading videos of herself playing Chopin to YouTube. After millions clicked, she landed a record deal. And Michael Nyman, the restlessly inventive British composer, is best known for his dozens of movie scores — chiefly the one he wrote for Jane Campion's Oscar-winning The Piano (1993).

That movie casts a spell over Lisitsa's new album, Chasing Pianos, released April 8 and timed to mark the composer's 70th birthday March 23. The cover re-creates the arresting image from the film of a piano set on a barren beach while the album includes solo piano transcriptions from The Piano sprinkled throughout its 25 tracks, all of which are drawn from Nyman film scores.

Nyman, a former critic who coined the term "minimal" for the steady-state sounds emerging in the late 1960s, made a name for himself composing music for esoteric films by Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman's Contract, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prospero's Books). Blending minimalist techniques with pop sensibility and skillful, hummable melodies, Nyman has been labeled the British Philip Glass — a convenient oversimplification that actually benefits neither composer.

The music on Chasing Pianos unfolds like a 78-minute solo piano suite, launched with the rolling, sweepingly romantic arpeggios of "The Heart Asks Pleasure First," the irresistible theme from The Piano. The music covers a broad range of moods and styles. "Sheep and Tides," from Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers — the entire score for which is based on Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante — sports a cheery, lilting, Poulenc-style waltz. "Why?" from an animated version of The Diary of Anne Frank is built from a gorgeous pop-like hook Radiohead would be proud to call its own, and "Diary of Love," from Neil Jordan's The End of the Affair, croons like a slow song without words.

In Lisitsa's more than capable hands (she's used to playing knuckle-busters by Rachmaninoff and Liszt) Nyman's music shines in all its simple, emotional and propulsive beauty.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.