Louis Lortie plays Liszt at Wigmore Hall

Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième annèe (Italie) [Sposalizio; Il Penseroso; Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa; Tre sonetti di Petracha; Après une lecture du Dante – Fantasia quasi sonata]
La lugubre gondola No.2
R.W. – Venezia
Venezia e Napoli

Louis Lortie (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 4 December, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Louis Lortie. Photograph: KassKaraPublicity shots of the French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie frequently show him in romantic-tyro mode, one arm dramatically raised to tame an instrument that is about to bite back before it spontaneously combusts. On the evidence of this Liszt recital at Wigmore Hall, the reality is very different – the histrionic gestures were rare, an in extremis result of the demands of the music, setting Lortie’s imperturbably rock-solid technique in context, and quite startling for those of us sitting on the non-keyboard side, since that was the only time we saw his hands doing anything.

It’s a great shame that London hasn’t presented Lortie’s three-hour pilgrimage through all three sets of the Années – he has performed the cycle in the US, Bayreuth and Snape Maltings, and there is his recording on Chandos – but his performance of the ‘Italian’ year, along with the additional Venice and Naples pieces, generated its own world in a completely enthralling way.

Of all the Liszt recitals during this bicentenary year, Lortie’s will live in the memory for the concentration with which he sustained the seven Italian pieces in their internalised response to art, so very different to the landscape grandeur of the Swiss year of pilgrimage. He set the bar high in ‘Sposalizio’, offered with a rapture that hovered like a mystical paintbrush-in-sound over Raphael’s painting of the wedding of Mary and Joseph. In Liszt’s homage to Michelangelo, ‘Il Penseroso’, as in La lugubre gondola, Lortie was masterly in pushing the music’s passionate declamatory style as near as damn it into the realm of words, an aspect of his playing taken even further in the three Petrarch Sonnets – the radiance of No.123 (“I saw on earth angelic grace”) was ardent enough, but the unrequited love of 104 was something else in terms of passion. Lortie has the uncanny ability to enable us to hear not only how essentially these pieces are of their time, taking nineteenth-century subjectivity and the cult of self to the limit, but also how modern.

In that respect Lortie’s performance of the ‘Dante Sonata’ was a colossal achievement, in which abandonment of hope and celestial aspiration were not so much evoked as experienced. This mercurial act of imagination and self-identification continued with a fabulously effortful La lugubre gondola, a floating hearse that just about heaved itself into a semblance of rocking motion, and a R.W. – Venezia of epic, empty desolation. In this company, the ‘Tarentella’ from Venezia e Napoli, superbly played, was less a delirious conclusion than dancing to the brink.

Lortie’s playing had it all – that sort of strength and wisdom that drew you into the drama and eye-watering originality of Liszt’s music and was played with such conviction. He drew an extraordinary range of sound from the stunning Fazioli piano – organ-like solidity to extremes of delicacy, with any amount of colour and attack in between.

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