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Archive for January, 2013

Louis Lortie

Louis Lortie

Louis Lortie

I once attended a recital by François René-Duchable, which ended with a stunning performance of the Liszt transcription of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Following the concert, a friend asked me why I thought Liszt had written it. I gave the conventional answer –  to make the piece more widely known. “But he was the only one who could play it! How many people would ever hear him?” It was a good point.

Piano transcriptions, particularly transcriptions of famous operas, were a particularly lucrative part of music publishing in the nineteenth century. As a child, I used to practice sight-reading by playing through famous operatic overtures, such as Suppé’s Poet and Peasant and Rossini’s William Tell, from music that was handed down from my grandparents. The yellowing volume was brittle with age and showered paper fragments onto the keyboard whenever I turned the pages too briskly. Clearly, this was a way of disseminating music to the masses (or at least the bourgeoisie), so it could be argued that Liszt was just transforming a staple of popular culture into an elevated art form, much as Schubert had transformed German dances. Not that his motivation was always high-minded; his famous duel with Sigismond Thalberg to determine who was the greatest pianist of their age mostly comprised opera transcriptions written as an exercise in virtuoso preening. Very few are still played today because of their limited musical interest.

These thoughts were inspired by Louis Lortie’s Chicago recital last week, which was an unusual program consisting entirely of operatic transcriptions, mostly from Wagner. Whatever the motivations for writing these transcriptions, we might ask why anyone still plays them when we can listen to full orchestral versions on our drive to work. More cynically, it gives a pianist like Lortie a marketing hook on which to release another CD in Wagner’s bicentenary year. Lortie’s own justification, given in the post-concert reception, was that he loved the music and wanted to be able to claim it for himself. Fair enough – but why should we listen (other than because it was part of a subscription series or that he is a very fine pianist)?

The problems of the genre were exposed in the first piece, a transcription by Lortie himself of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. He played the opening bars at a daringly slow speed, with huge chasms between the opening chords for the piano sound to decay into. During these gaps, Lortie seemed to use his left arm in a futile attempt to sweep the air back under the piano lid and sustain the sound. Incidentally, there were times I wished that his right arm were free to control these left arm convulsions – for some reason, I kept thinking of Dr. Strangelove. As the music grew more urgent, the task of encompassing it all with only ten fingers began to sound more and more strained, even with Lortie’s remarkable technique. Then, suddenly, the music started to sound natural, majestic, compelling. I realized that this was because he was now playing Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod, a near miraculous transformation of the most complex of orchestral textures into shimmering tremolos, pulsing chords, and left-hand arpeggios. This was perhaps the most important, and least surprising, thing I learned in this recital; no matter how skillful the transcriber, and Lortie’s transcription was highly professional, they could not match Liszt in sheer artistry and imagination.

This was confirmed by the next piece, Hugo Wolf’s transcription of the Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre. If you have seen this scene in the opera, you will know that it is one of the most majestic consummations of an opera ever written, but here it was like viewing Niagara Falls on a picture postcard. The music was pretty enough but it also seemed stiff and formulaic, perversely bringing to mind one of my favourite musical responses to Wagner’s operas, Chabrier’s Souvenirs de Munich, in which he reduced Wagner to a set of quadrilles for piano four-hands. My guess is that Hugo Wolf needed the money. Josef Rubinstein’s transcription of the Siegfried Idyll was more successful, music on a more intimate scale, whose natural lyricism brought out some of Lortie’s most sensitive playing. But none of these transcriptions matched Liszt’s, including the final piece, his overture to Tannhäuser, which Lortie played with tremendous power and verve.

The finest music on the program was based on Mozart, not Wagner. This was Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, not really a transcription of Don Giovanni, more an epic dramatization of his final judgement and damnation. Liszt builds up the sense of dread with surging chromatic scales, provides temporary respite with some variations on La ci darem la mano to remind us of the Don’s path to perdition, and then propels him to his doom in a nightmare gallop based on the champagne aria. I couldn’t help thinking that Lortie’s effortless facility was a problem in this music; he seemed to be enjoying himself a bit too much. After the chromatic scales were dispatched with an inappropriately rhythmic precision, the La ci darem la mano theme was surely too jaunty, with almost an oom-pah accompaniment, and the champagne gallop was frenetic rather than terrifying, more reminiscent of Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement than Don Giovanni. I’m all for pianists having a good time, but not when they are meant to be scaring us into repentance.

But I shouldn’t complain. This was by far the most enterprising program this year and Lortie introduced me to music that we don’t have much opportunity to hear these days, even if it is available for only 99¢ on iTunes. I have to admit that part of the fun of regularly attending recitals by the greatest pianists in the world is the thrill of seeing them overcome formidable technical difficulties with jaw-dropping ease, and there were many examples in this recital. If he had too much fun this time, it was probably because he was playing a genre of music that has always straddled the border between art and showmanship. And I suspect that Lortie, if he were to take on Thalberg in a duel, would win by a mile. I’m not so sure of his chances against Liszt.

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