“I was sitting alone in North Carolina eating potato chips, blaming everyone, blaming my parents,” Ms. Lisitsa said in a recent interview in Manhattan. “It’s a sinkhole, and it’s very difficult to get out. It’s only when you stop trying to find faults and start doing something constructive that you will survive.” She added, “It’s just good for you as a human not to dwell on your disasters.”

Casually dressed in jeans, glittery flip-flops and an orange shirt she had bought for her son, Ms. Lisitsa was frazzled but gregarious after a trip to New York from Paris. She spoke about the low points in her career, including a Christmas when her application to perform in a concert at a nursing home was rejected and a stint selling housewares on eBay.

Ms. Lisitsa’s eureka moment came when reading a child’s version of “1,001 Nights” to her son, Benjamin, now 8. “There were all those beautiful women, like another blonde Russian pianist,” she said. “They all got killed after the first night. This one did not. Why not? She came with a story. You have to invent your story. You can call it gimmicky, but whatever works. Something that stops making you a commodity.”

Earlier in her career, Ms. Lisitsa said, she felt like a commodity herself, an “easily interchangeable” female musician who could be called upon at the last minute to wear a fancy gown and trot out Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

She had begun her career as a duo pianist with her husband, Alexei Kuznetsoff. After winning a competition in 1991, they obtained management, but the engagements dried up. “We were naïve and thought that if you play well, people will notice you,” she said. “But music is a luxury product, and if you see a Mont Blanc pen or Rolex watch in Walmart, people will just pass by. It has to come with a certain package, and you have to have your own audience.”

After a midlife crisis when she considered quitting music, Ms. Lisitsa decided to be proactive. Her husband filmed her playing Chopin’s 24 Études, which they released as a DVD on Amazon.com in 2007. The couple were initially irritated when people uploaded sections to YouTube, but they decided to upload the entire DVD themselves as a promotion. The tactic worked, and sales increased. They took another gamble when they spent their life savings to hire the London Symphony Orchestra so Ms. Lisitsa could record the four Rachmaninoff concertos, which Decca has now released.

Niall O’Rourke, the creative director at Decca’s London office, said Ms. Lisitsa’s use of YouTube was new territory for the label’s classical artists. “It’s more of pop approach,” he said, noting the success of Justin Bieber and others discovered on YouTube. “Valentina was on our radar, and when we saw how many YouTube followers she had, we wondered how to tap into that fan base. It was an experiment.” Other classical musicians, like the violinist Hilary Hahn (with whom Ms. Lisitsa recorded sonatas by Ives), are certainly active on YouTube, but Ms. Lisitsa is one of the first to have built a highly successful career via the medium.

On a video called “I Hate Rachmaninoff,” Ms. Lisitsa describes how she rebelled against his music when pressured to perform it in competitions in Ukraine, saying, “I didn’t want to touch his music with dirty, competition hands.” In Rachmaninoff and the other works she has recorded, she is passionate, communicative and deeply expressive. Reviewing her performance of the Liszt Concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic, Steve Smith wrote in The New York Times that “Ms. Lisitsa’s range of colors and expressive shadings was consistently impressive; in the second movement she executed trills with an attention-grabbing precision.”

While speaking to the audience at her Live From the Albert Hall concert (which was recorded for CD and DVD), she self-deprecatingly remarked that her microphone would need a Slavic filter to process her heavy accent, before joking about the soccer match between England and Ukraine taking place at the same time as the concert.

Ms. Lisitsa grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, where she began playing at 3. Her mother, Valentina, a seamstress, encouraged her to become a music teacher. After studies at the Kiev Conservatory and a stint as a serious chess player, the pianist and her husband immigrated to America. After living in Indiana and Miami Beach, they bought a house in a rural, wooded area east of Raleigh. One video on her channel is called “Practicing Piano in North Carolina During Hurricane Irene.”

Below the video are Ms. Lisitsa’s comments about the experience. She actively engages her fans on social media. Unlike the polite feeds of some other classical artists, Ms. Lisitsa, a self-described “contrarian,” is argumentative and outspoken, tweeting about politics and berating concert promoters who have irked her.

Her liberal attitude to listeners photographing or recording her concerts distinguishes her from many of her colleagues. At pop events, audience members ubiquitously record the music, but the practice is invariably prohibited at formal classical spaces. At Carnegie Hall, ushers zealously race down the aisles to berate any device-toting offenders publicly.

In June, during a concert in Essen, Germany, the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman stopped performing after becoming distracted by an audience member filming him. He left the stage; when he returned, he told the audience, “The destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous,” claiming that he had been refused recording contracts because his music was already online.

The violinist James Ehnes has also expressed concern about YouTube. After noticing someone filming one of his performances and feeling “surprise and mild annoyance,” he wrote an article for The Huffington Post about his conflicted feelings regarding the ethical and economic issues of illicit recordings.

Classical music needs to evolve more quickly, Ms. Lisitsa said. “There is a long train, and we’re the last car in the train. Pop music is the first car. Now, any new song Lady Gaga does, she puts on YouTube first. And I don’t think she has trouble selling her CDs.”

Far from destroying classical music, Ms. Lisitsa said, YouTube will create a new audience. “We are perpetually complaining about our audiences being old,” she said.

“They are always dying but never quite die, because there will always be more old people,” she added, referring to a letter that Chopin wrote about one concert at which there were no young people in the audience because it was the start of hunting season.

“Just as kids who initially like bubbly and graduate to fine wine, some people will graduate to the finer elements of classical music via YouTube,” she said.

The medium also offers listeners a chance to decide for themselves, she said. “The movers and shakers find and proclaim ‘the next Horowitz,’ then it drips down to the people, with the perfect recording and glossy magazines,” she said. “Then if deep inside people don’t enjoy it, they feel guilty and that they’re not educated enough to enjoy it.” As with a restaurant, if the food or service is horrid “you just don’t go back,” she said. “You don’t think ‘I’m not educated enough to comprehend this octopus with chocolate crumble.’ ”

What is needed in the digital era, she said, is a measure of device etiquette. “People know when they go to restaurants, they are not supposed to burp,” she said. “So when they go to concerts, they can take off the flash off the camera.”

YouTube also presents a challenge to maintaining the unhealthy status quo of perfection in the classical industry. Every tiny flaw can forever be immortalized on video, which in turn can stifle artists from taking risks, resulting in note-perfect boring performances.

There have been many brutal comments posted under Ms. Lisitsa’s own videos about her wrong notes and imperfections. “You get a thick skin,” she said. But she rushes online to stand up for other musicians. She once defended the pianist Mitsuko Uchida from nitpicky YouTube commenters highlighting a microscopic error in one of Ms. Uchida’s live performances.

“Classical musicians behave in the same way as young girls looking at fashion magazines and starving themselves,” Ms. Lisitsa said. “Would-be musicians are starving themselves emotionally and intellectually just to be perfect.”