Louis Lortie at Koerner Hall – Chopin

Nocturne in G minor, Op.15/3
Ballade in G minor, Op.23
Nocturne in F, Op.15/1
Ballade in F, Op.38
Nocturne in E flat, Op.9/2
Nocturne in C minor, Op.48/1
Ballade in A flat, Op.47
Nocturne in F minor, Op.55/1
Ballade in F minor, Op.52
Berceuse, Op.57
Nocturne in F sharp minor, Op.15/2
Barcarolle, Op.60

Louis Lortie (piano)

Reviewed by: Patrick P. L. Lam

Reviewed: 11 April, 2010
Venue: Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, Toronto

Louis Lortie. Photograph: KassKaraIn the January/February issue of “International Piano”, Louis Lortie featured in an article entitled “Freedom of Expression”. Lortie dissected those attractive traits of famed Chopin pianists that included Moritz Rosenthal and Alfred Cortot. This ‘golden age’ of interpreters had a characteristically rich, almost vocal-like sound quality in their playing of Chopin that by and large has evolved into a rarity within today’s generation of pianists. Lortie further expanded on these qualities as the “very idiosyncratic rubatos and ways of making this [Chopin’s] music dance”, or more precisely, it is “the life the players bring to the inner voices … there’s always a dialectical element going on here between this bel canto melody, which wants to dominate, and the aspect of counterpoint and inner voices fighting against the easy bel canto victory to achieve a certain purity.” This very philosophy in the playing of Chopin’s music embodies a style of “free-spirited expression”. Tracing his routes to Yvonne Hubert, who was not only Lortie’s teacher but a former Cortot pupil, the French-Canadian revisited some of these illuminating qualities at Koerner Hall.

Lortie presented an imaginative menu for his Chopin recital given under the auspices of The Royal Conservatory. Many of the works were selected for their unique compound duple time; a coincidence perhaps, but nevertheless, the intrinsic rhythmic 6/8 meter reinforced the lilt and dance-like characteristics that helped define the popularity of Chopin’s music; and he juxtaposed the Ballades by prefacing each with selections from the Nocturnes that shared a common key. This pattern had its rewards in creating a striking contrast and balance.

Beginning with the first pair, both in G minor, Lortie was quick to evoke the contrasting episodes underlying the overall moods – be it the languido e rubato or the religioso in the Nocturne, which evolved into a kind of solemn prayer that prepared fittingly to the rubato opening of the Ballade, Lortie effecting an eager feeling of anticipation, a reactionary force to an overall momentum he maintained throughout. At times, this momentum was influenced by overwhelming emotions of turbulence, which had certain trade-offs, such as rendering the projectile leading to midpoint fff passage to sound feverishly out of control.

The next pair was in F major, a key associated with some of Chopin’s ravishingly beautiful melodies. The first of the Opus 15 Nocturnes may be the lesser of the three, but Lortie made a persuasive case for it with its ephemeral Andante theme and a trio section marked Con fuoco. The F major Ballade demands a tightly focused technique and a poetic ear, both within Lortie’s gift. He balanced polished virtuosity and lyrical poeticism, although technical precision occasionally succumbed to the challenge.

In the third set, represented by two further Nocturnes and the A flat Ballade in relative keys, Lortie found his true musical calling. The piano sound blossomed into a rich array of colors and fulfilled by the imaginative ability of Lortie to contrast melodies of the two hands most suavely, like vocal duets exchanged between a coloratura soprano and a lyric tenor.

Following intermission, Lortie opened with an F minor Nocturne and the Ballade in the same key, displaying fine execution and clarity and more restrained use of the pedals. The Nocturne is of exquisite beauty, Lortie bringing out its sorrowful elements and the intertwining inner voices and their harmonic relationships in the Ballade.

The Berceuse, a cradle song, was magically rendered by Lortie; while his left-hand maintained the oscillating D flat pattern, the melody soared with an almost harp-like quality. Likewise, the Opus 15/Number 2 Nocturne is not only a work of beauty and power, but everything in between. In particular, the agitated motion in the middle section showed Lortie tempering the quintuplet figuration with burning passion. He ended his programme with the great Barcarolle. Lortie explored its intricate beauty and expanse of color by approaching it like a Romantic art song. “Free-spirited expression” was, after all, one of the criteria for Lortie unravelling the world of Chopin’s music.

As an encore, Lortie offered the Nocturne Opus 27/Number 2. Lortie believes that imagination and spontaneity should take precedence over a literal reaction to the published score. While his Chopin-playing may not be to everyone’s taste, his interpretations offer an attractive “freedom of expression”.

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