Louis Lortie – Chopin, Volume 1 [Chandos]

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Nocturnes – in E minor, Op.72/1; in E flat, Op.55/2; in E, Op.62/2; in B, Op.62/1
The Four Scherzos
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35

Louis Lortie (piano)

Recorded 9 & 10 December 2009 in Britten Studio, Hoffmann Building, Snape Maltings, Suffolk

Reviewed by: Sebastian Maples

Reviewed: May 2010
Duration: 80 minutes



A nocturne prefaces each of the Scherzos, an interesting arrangement of key-relationship or mood-similarity and something that Louis Lortie has been doing regularly in his Chopin recitals. The E minor Nocturne is rather solemn, quite soulful, rising to emotional heights, Lortie savouring melody and feeling. There follows with scarcely a pause the B minor Scherzo, rapacious in its outer sections (mirroring the anxiety in the preceding Nocturne) and tender and yearning in the trio.

And so the patterning and the juxtapositions continue: a rapturous E flat Nocturne and a marvellously fiery and consoling account of the B flat minor Scherzo (on a par with Michelangeli’s remarkable version for DG); the E major Nocturne’s unpredicted shapes and harmonies all the more surprising for being simply stated, and then the C sharp minor Scherzo scurries, sometimes with undue emphasis and at least one unconvincing bit of punctuation, but how seamless the join into the chorale-like trio, perhaps lacking here the last word in majesty and eloquence; and, finally in this sequence, the B major Nocturne steals in a little too lightly for the opening bars’ harmonic disturbance but soon steers a path of rich extemporisation, an elusiveness that matches well to the E major Scherzo, a flight of fancy indeed from Lortie’s mercurial fingers.

In what is a programme in itself, and maybe as this series continues, selected nocturnes will precede the Ballades, the Impromptus – you get the picture – the B flat minor Sonata is somewhat isolated in design. Nevertheless this is an impressive version, the first movement driven by snappy left-hand rhythms (although some may find the second subject overly demarcated by a markedly slower tempo), and, come the exposition repeat, Lortie returns to the very opening bars (rather than to the main allegro) to commanding effect, the development rising to dramatic heights. The scherzo is rugged, its trio flowing (apt for a section that can seem never-ending). The funeral march lacks a little gravitas, and begins too loudly (and is arguably a notch too quick), but the central meditation is a blissful riposte, again flowing but with sentiment intact. To conclude is a mesmeric account of the bizarre finale, played at high-octane speed yet with amazing clarity and with uncommon attention given to the bass end.

If there are a few reservations with Lortie’s interpretations with the overall impression being that his musicianship is very distinguished and perceptive, then the recorded sound also attracts a few brickbats. The piano is a little left-justified rather than dead-centre, the instrument sometimes lacking presence and one is too aware of the acoustic and the piano’s placement within it. When the piano is at its boldest dynamically all is well, save the top register is a little edgy, but softer volumes lose the instrument its optimum fullness and tangibility.

Nevertheless this generous first volume of Louis Lortie’s Chopin series, which will presumably include a new version of the Studies that Lortie recorded for Chandos quite a few years ago, suggests a traversal of this classically conceived and romantically aflame music (a symbiosis that Lortie seems particularly sympathetic to) that will stand high amongst recommendable versions of this oft-recorded repertoire.

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