Louis Lortie at Queen Elizabeth Hall – Chopin Studies

12 Etudes, Op.10
Trois Nouvelles Etudes
12 Etudes, Op.25

Louis Lortie (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 23 November, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Louis Lortie. Photograph: KassKaraIt’s very rare that a pianist takes on both sets of Chopin studies in a recital, 24 (27 if you include the three new ones) nuggets of technically dense material – the longest of which is Opus 25/Number 7 at around five minutes – that also contain some of Chopin’s finest, most luminous music and which mercilessly challenge a pianist’s technique. They have been in Louis Lortie’s repertoire for many years, and his 1986 recording (on Chandos) is one of the benchmark modern performances, in which the virtuoso demands are always an expressive means to an end. Moreover, each set forms such a satisfying whole that for Chopin purists, for whom Opuses 10 and 25 are Chopin’s Opus 111, as it were, it is almost sacrilegious to perform them separately.

Compared with the freshness and candour of the recording, Lortie’s QEH performance, slightly pre-empting the Southbank Centre’s “Chopin at 200” anniversary, was much more complicated and, in Opus 10, even troubled. Often a tensed shoulder took a while to relax, and the weight put on the well-known, tender No.3 seemed a bit too much. But the winding threnody in the middle of the texture of No.6 was superbly colour-less and eloquent, the bone-crunching difficulties of No.4 and the ‘Black Keys’ study (No.5) seemed almost a doddle, and he caught the high spirits of No.8 – not quite in the rollicking Cortot league perhaps, but with all the right notes.

A particularly bleak ‘Revolutionary’ Study suggested that Lortie was more at ease in the more introverted and lyrical Opus 25 set. Paradoxically, the pitting of two different triplet rhythms in No.2 might have been better served by minimum expression – it wasn’t ’dead’ enough. But the passionate lament of No.7 was beautifully underplayed, the mighty octaves study (No.10) gave Lortie space for some rare Lisztian bravura, and the torrent of notes in No.11 was humbling.

For the most part, however, Lortie’s playing was undemonstrative, close to the keyboard, formidably clean and, just occasionally, with a bit of forearm push for more power – and he avoided excessive rubato in favour of some tellingly placed emphases, understandable in such short, focussed pieces. He was playing a Fazioli piano, its subtle middle register and clear bass perfect for the discreet shading of Opus 25/Number 7, say, but there were moments that needed more Steinway-style brightness, although this sort of consideration is very subjective.

These are mere niggles, though, when presented with such great playing of one of the high points of romantic piano music. You’d have thought that the last thing he’d have wanted to play as an encore would be the ‘Funeral March’ and finale from the B flat minor Sonata, until you heard the march’s trio. You wouldn‘t believe that a piano could produce such a remote and disembodied sound, and the finale has never seemed so spectral and abstract. There followed a Chopin Nocturne.

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