South Bank International Piano Series – Louis Lortie (20 October)

Night Fantasies
Transcendental Studies – Feux follets; Harmonies du soir
Hungarian Rhapsody No.9 (Pester Karneval)
Gaspard de la nuit
Fantasiestücke, Op.111
Schumann arr. Liszt
Frühlingsnacht (Liederkreis, Op.39)
Wagner arr. Liszt
O du mein holder Abendstern (Tannhäuser)

Louis Lortie (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 October, 2002
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Louis Lortie’s stylistically wide-ranging programme was collected under the theme of night.

Liszt’s transcriptions can’t escape a smile-inducing Liberace-like resonance sometimes; certainly the rippling keyboard manoeuvres needed for Schumann’s ex-Lied suggested a candelabra be dusted off and placed on the piano – a Fazioli that was bass-light and treble-bright, the sustaining pedal when long-held inducing muddy textures. Lortie’s tendency to pound made the climax of Harmonies du soir overwrought, although sultry evocation around it was beautifully done. It’s difficult to call Feux follets – it was breathtaking in one way, yet Lortie seemed intent on showing how difficult it is and how well he can play it; there was no room for intangibility, which the Hungarian Rhapsody didn’t need. Lortie swaggered through this with technical nonchalance, relishing the cimbalom effects and each and every ornamental overlay.

After somewhat pulverising what should have been exhilarating Schumann (as arranged), Wagner’s ’Evening Star’ settled Lortie’s poetic instinct if not his tendency to overstate; this made too much of the nervous intensity that is overt in Schumann’s unpredictable Op.111 – good to hear this rare set though.

With Elliott Carter (who will be 94 on 11 December and currently writing a piece for the Boston Symphony) linking to Schumann for Night Fantasies it would surely have made sense to follow Op.111 with Carter’s 20-minute piece in which he “wanted to capture the fanciful, changeable quality of our inner life … the poetic moodiness … I enjoy in works by Robert Schumann”. Instead Carter and Ravel shared the second half (the original-Liszt sequence ending the first).

Night Fantasies was written in 1980 for four commissioning pianists, of whom Charles Rosen has recorded it [BRIDGE]. Beginning with a Schumannesque chord reference, Night Fantasies then goes its own way. Rhetorical outbursts are punctuated by quietude coloured by restless sleep. Night Fantasies is a tough nut to crack. Two-thirds through one senses a subliminal winding down beneath the activity. The arrival point is a series of chords followed by chordal reiteration that attempts to stem the elemental force; the music stops and evaporates to silence.

Gaspard was given a stunning performance – hypnotic waves of sound contrasted with much delicacy and refinement, the climax of ’Ondine’ wonderfully integrated, the numbed aftermath amazingly ’distant’, which related ideally to the non-expressional world of ’Le Gibet’. Ironically, having brought spikiness to Feux follets, Lortie underplayed the malevolence of ’Scarbo’, fabulously played though it was.

For an encore Lortie offered ’Le jardin féerique’ from Mother Goose, originally for piano duet then orchestrated; this transcription for piano (Lortie’s?) really didn’t work – it’s one thing to play tenderly (which Lortie did), it’s another to have enough mechanism to play all the notes at the end, which Lortie didn’t by dint of elements being removed. A curious end to a recital that highlighted with Gaspard but in the end didn’t quite add up due to interpretative manner and order of events.

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