It takes a special pianist that has the stamina to play an all Chopin programme. The challenge is compounded when the recital encompasses both books of the Études (Op. 10 and 25) as well as the Preludes, Op. 28. And so it was that Canada’s own Louis Lortie graced the Orpheum stage for just such a performance. It was an evening of incredible pianism, but musically and emotionally somewhat less than entirely satisfactory.
It was impressive to watch Lortie launch right into the Études in C major, Op. 10, No. 1. I appreciated the clarity of his playing and his refraining from excessive pedaling. In the second Étude, the pianist’s fingerwork was immaculate, and he brought out the lightness and bounciness of the left hand. The celebrated Étude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3 had a beautiful return to the A section at the end of the work. Both the fourth and fifth Études were technically stunning. I particularly liked the glittering effect he achieved with the right hand triplets. Lortie successfully negotiated the subtle harmonic changes in the Rachmaninoff-like Étude in E-flat minor, Op. 10, No. 6, although I felt that there could have been more gradations of colours. I appreciated the clarity of texture and his voicing of the right hand in the Étude in C major, Op. 10, No. 7 as well as how he drew our attention to the beauty of the left hand in the Étude in F major, Op. 10, No. 8. The pianist underplayed the drama in the beginning of the Étude in F minor, Op. 10, No. 9 until the octave passages beginning at m. 49, and played a lovely ending bringing to life Chopin’s leggierissimo indication. The pedaling was particularly well done in his playing of the Étude in A-flat major, Op. 10, No. 10, which created some beautiful blending of sounds. Although the broken chords were immaculately executed in the Étude in E-flat major, Op. 10, No. 11, there was unfortunately a feeling of sameness in the sound. I thought that he missed Chopin’s dolcissimo indication at m. 44. This indication can only be found in the autograph and not the printed version, but it does make sense to have a different feel to the chords toward the end of the work. The so-called Revolutionary Étude (Op. 10, No. 12) was played with a great deal of sweep.
After only a brief pause, Lortie continued the first half with his performance of the Op. 25 set of Études. Unfortunately, the brightness of the piano took away the very subtle beauty of the music in the Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1, but he did achieve the lightness that the music calls for. I have never understood Chopin’s seemingly absurdly fast metronomic indication (half note equals 112) for the Étude in F minor, Op. 25, No. 2. I feel that one would miss the beauty of the right hand triplets with such a quick tempo. Perhaps Lortie’s playing of the work has its own logic, since it created a lovely blending of sonorities. I was somewhat surprised at the very heavy handed playing of the third and fourth Études of the set, although I did admire his incisive attacks of the right hand chords in the fourth Étude. His playing of the Étude in E minor, Op. 25, No. 5 was far too heavily pedaled, and took away the gentle humour of the music. I believe that the opening section should be played much more dryly. He did, however, successfully convey the beauty of the left hand in the B section. Lortie’s performance of the frightfully difficult Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 was perhaps the highlight of the evening. To be sure, the rapid thirds in the right hand were perfectly played, but the beauty of the work, as Vladimir Howoritz said, is in the left hand. I think Lortie understood this, as he played it with grace and subtlety. His performance of the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7, was successful as well, conveying the utter bleakness, sadness and despair that is inherent in the music. The transition to the B-flat major 6/4 chord at m. 27 was like a ray of sunlight that suddenly shone through. The artist pedaled the Étude in D-flat major, Op. 25, No. 8 most effectively, and played the short piece as if it were one long phrase. Unfortunately, the Étude in G-flat major, Op. 25, No. 9 (refer to by some as the Butterfly Étude) was far, far too heavily played – the butterfly was much too earthbound. He brought out the strange beauty of the B section in the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10, and his pacing in the return to the A section was most effective. The pianist really observed the composer’s risoluto indication at m. 5 of the Étude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11. I find it interesting that most of Chopin’s indication in this very dramatic work is forte only, not fortissimo. In fact, the first fortissimo indications come only as late as m. 61 and 63. I thought Lortie understood this, and really let the music build rather than giving it all right at the outset. The last work of the set was also well played. He resisted pedaling the work excessively, which lent the work a clarity that we don’t often hear.
I missed the feeling of desperate longing and anticipation in Lortie’s playing of the Prelude in C major, Op. 28, No. 1, as well as the dark, menacing colours of the Prelude in A minor, Op. 28, No. 2. The pianist completely missed Chopin’s leggiermente marking for the Prelude in G major, Op. 28, No. 3, and played the left hand as if it were Czerny. I also missed the slow build-up that the music calls for in the Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4, as well as the Prelude in B minor, Op. 28, No. 6. Strangely, he seemed to have played the work with just a single colour. Again, the Prelude in D major, Op. 28, No. 5 was far too heavily played, and he failed to convey the beguiling beauty of the music. The Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7 was played simply and gracefully, exactly the qualities that the music calls for. The opening of the Prelude in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 8 sounded mechanical to my ears, but things did improve later on, but I did like the dignity he conveyed in his playing of the Prelude in E major, Op. 28, No. 9. I also liked the lightness of his right hand in the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 10, and his beautiful playing of the Prelude in B major, Op. 28, No. 11. Lortie successfully brought across the wildness of the music in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 12. He achieved a rare real feeling of intimacy in his performance of the Prelude in F-sharp major, Op. 28, No. 13, and a feeling of buoyancy in the A section’s right hand chords. The playing got too loud too soon in the Prelude in E-flat minor, Op. 28, No. 14, and I missed the “weirdness” of the unison writing that is so apparent in the music. The artist gave us a lovely opening for the Prelude in D-flat major, Op. 28, No. 15, as well as effective transitions to the C-sharp minor B section and then back to the A section, although the climaxes in the B section could have been much more shattering (without being heavy).
Lortie certainly took no prisoners in his dramatic reading of the Prelude in B-flat minor, Op. 28, No. 16, although his sparse pedaling in the opening runs worked less successfully in this work. There were some lovely colours in the unique sonorities of the key of A-flat major (Op. 28, No. 17), even though I missed the richness in sound that the work calls for. The pianist captured the unsettling feeling in the Prelude in F minor, Op. 28, No. 18, and achieved in the Prelude in E-flat major (Op. 28, No. 19) the lightness and that had quite often eluded him last evening. There was lovely voicing of the middle voice in Lortie’s playing of the funereal Prelude in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20, but the right hand forte and fortissimo chords were much too heavy in the Prelude in B-flat major, Op. 28, No. 21. His playing of the Prelude in G minor, Op. 28, No. 22 was appropriately stormy, and technically impeccable. There was wonderful contrast between the aforementioned Prelude and the Prelude in F major (Op. 28, No. 23) that followed. Here, Lortie beautifully conveyed the picture of blue skies and calm waters. Likewise, the he captured the high drama and utter destruction (at the end) of the Prelude in D minor, Op. 28, No. 24.
Although there was much to admire in Mr. Lortie’s performance last night, honesty compels me to say that I found the essence of Chopin only in very few of the works performed. Part of the problem, I thought, was the instrument of the artist’s choice - that beautifully built concert grand of Italian origin that has been attracting fans amongst both musicians and the very wealthy. The sound was simply too bright, too booming, and it does not, in my view, possess the large tonal palette of the Steinway. There was much in Lortie’s playing that was heavy, and the very big sound that he commands does not always work for the composer’s music.
From the standpoint of piano playing, Lortie’s performance was beyond reproach, and it was obvious that every element in his conception of the pieces had been thoroughly worked out down to the last detail. I would like to believe that an artist with the talent and musicality of Louis Lortie would some day arrive at an ideal interpretation of Chopin’s music, if he continues his quest. In his encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, he gave us a tantalizing hint that he is able to capture Chopin’s soul in his beautiful interpretation of the much loved work.
Alfred Brendel was correct in saying that a pianist either plays Chopin or everything else. And the entire evening reminded me yet again of how difficult it is to really interpret Chopin. Of all the composers, the essence, or the soul, of Chopin is most elusive to even the greatest pianists of any time. I am quite hopeful that Louis Lortie will one day find the true essence of Chopin in his artistic journey.
May 10, 2017