On Sunday evening, Canadian pianist Louis Lortie gave one of the best recitals in recent memory on the National Gallery of Art's free concert series (he gave the same program last week in Santa Fe, reviewed by one D. S. Crafts). Lortie has appearances in Washington from time to time, most recently at the National Gallery three years ago, but this was the first time I had heard him play. The program combined three of his strengths -- Liszt, Chopin, and modern music -- executed with overpowering strength and graceful finesse on a gorgeous Fazioli piano loaned to the museum.
It was a gutsy move to open with a piece as technically demanding as Liszt's showy transcription of Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser. Liszt tried to capture as much of Wagner's score as he could, and with that many notes on the page, it is hardly surprising that Lortie may have missed one or two. Still, what was marked in this stunning performance of a viciously difficult work was the orchestral sound, from the booming sound of the Wagnerian brass to the chromatic voluptuousness of the Venus music. A second Liszt selection, the "Vallée d'Obermann" from the first volume of the Années de pèlerinage. The longest piece in that book, "Obermann" is based on an episode in a once-famous, now largely forgetten book by Étienne de Senancour (1770-1846), Oberman (1804). The title character is a Romantic hero, and Liszt typically represents him in a melodic theme that is transformed over the course of the piece, which relates his visionary experience in a valley. The first half is not all that technically challenging, but Lortie showed his extraordinary skill at voicing the complicated harmonic twists around the theme. Lortie's virtuosity was tested again at the end of the piece, when he responded with sweeping, ecstatic gestures in the repeated chord section. This was truly mind-blowing Liszt.
|Lortie on Disc:|
Darkness Visible, Traced Overhead, et al.
In darkness let me dwell, the ground shall sorrow be,In a quasi-pointillistic texture, a shimmering inner voice drips out rapidly but gently repeated notes, while ultra-high notes and bass rumbles pierce the gloom. Once again, Lortie expertly voiced each level of the texture, creating a murky nocturne of the cosmos. Adès has described the second piece on the program, Traced Overhead (1996), the following way (quoted in Danielle DeSwert's program notes):
The roof despair to bar all cheerful light from me,
The walls of marble black that moisten'd still shall weep,
My music hellish jarring sounds, to banish friendly sleep.
Thus wedded to my woes, and bedded to my tomb,
O, let me, living, living, die, till death do come.
Imagine a recording device sent up into space, then making a transcription of the data it brought back, in the form of sounds heard above our heads. The three pieces that make up the work describe a journey of increasing distance from earth, and, accordingly, of drastically increasing perceptual length.The three movements describe the regions of space we pass through: Sursum (the leap through the earth's atmosphere), Aetheria (the ether of the outer spheres of the universe), and Chori (the realm of the celestial choirs). It is more dissonant than Darkness Visible in its harmonic fabric, although it shares the composer's fascination with the piano's upper octaves and with strata of sound. For anyone really interested in this composer, there will be a festival devoted to the music of Thomas Adès, Traced Overhead, in March and April 2007 at the Barbican Centre in London, coordinated with the revival of The Tempest at Covent Garden in March.
The recital concluded with two pieces by Chopin, a rhythmically very free rendition of the B major nocturne (op.
Next Sunday at the National Gallery of Art (October 15, 6:30 pm) there will be a free recital by powerhouse soprano Alessandra Marc and pianist David Chapman, a program of French opera arias by Gustave Charpentier and other composers.