It’s fair to say that, unless they have the ability to play it, most people get to know Fauré’s piano music through recordings rather than live performance, whereas there is much more cross-fertilisation between the two with, say, Chopin, with whom Fauré is frequently compared. This is largely down to both composers writings pieces called Nocturne or Barcarolle, which is where similarities end.
Fauré’s piano music doesn’t yearn to be free of the salons in which it thrived – as is pointed out in Roger Nichols’s booklet note – for the composer had the ability but not the ambition to be a recitalist – and he used the medium to explore extremes of traditional harmony and polyphony in music of apollonian refinement, the later music achieving an astonishing synthesis of emotion, integrity of form and an understated transcendence that is uniquely French.
That Louis Lortie has bought into this ethos is clear from the first volume of his Fauré series for Chandos, and he has wisely opted to mix period, style and genre – performing all the Nocturnes or Barcarolles together does them no favours individually. Lortie also understands the type of discretion needed to make this music sing, he knows the veiled colours it requires – to which end he plays a Fazioli piano of immense tonal beauty – and he has the sort of technique to project Fauré’s signature elusiveness.
Above all, though, Lorie identifies fully with Fauré’s chromaticism and understands how he uses it to create space and light, not unlike the way in which Beethoven and Schubert explored the balance of keys a third apart in their Sonatas, enlarging on the traditional, tonic-dominant axis. Listen to the Sixth Nocturne, and be folded into Lortie’s luminous expansion of the piece’s outer sections and his poetic teasing of Fauré’s intangible harmonic trajectory. In this respect, the Nine Préludes, none of them longer than four minutes, are marvels of brevity that carry implications of something much bigger, but without a hint of density or rhetoric. They combine the daunting challenges of virtuoso Etudes with a limpid, elliptical intimacy – Lortie is marvellous in the moto perpetuo of No.2, with its strange, solemn coda casting what had gone before in a spectral light. Just as fine is No.3, which in Lortie’s hands obliquely evokes the Prelude to Act Three of Tristan – Fauré did not idolise Wagner – and opens out into music of great passion.
Lortie’s transcription of the well-known Pavane is lit with classical grace in gravely detached playing, there is Percy Grainger’s arrangement of ‘Après un rêve’, one of Fauré’s best-known melodies, expanded into Lisztian grandeur and passion with hectoring results, and the pieces he wrote (originally for piano, later orchestrated) for Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, along with Alfred Cortot’s arrangement of ‘Fileuse’ (Spinning song), include the familiar (to flautists) ‘Sicilienne’.
Fauré’s world is one of intimacy and subtlety, of the veiled and the unspoken, and one Louis Lortie’s sensibilities are completely attuned to.