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Louis Lortie at the NGA

Louis Lortie, pianistOn 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:

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available at Tower Records

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Thomas Adès:

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Darkness Visible, Traced Overhead, et al.
Truth be told, I went to this concert primarily because Lortie was going to play some of the piano music of Thomas Adès. I was impressed by this composer's latest opera, The Tempest, when I heard it at Santa Fe Opera this summer, but Adès got his start as a pianist, often playing his own pieces. Lortie gave revelatory performances of two works, beginning with Darkness Visible, from 1992, a piece derived from a 1610 lute song by Dowland:
In darkness let me dwell, the ground shall sorrow be,
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.
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):
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. 32 62, no. 1). Lortie's abundant use of pedal and soft touch made this piece sound so hazy and distant, like music heard from far away on a foggy night. In the return of the A section, in which the melody is washed out in constant trills, the sound was like a flock of birds twittering in a distant tree. Without any break for applause, Lortie launched into the B minor sonata, op. 58, breaking the nocturne's haze with loud, maestoso chords. Lortie can moderate his immense power (used to greatest effect on the loud conclusion of the Liszt transcription) so that his right hand is nothing but a gossamer web. Here the lovely fragility of the feminine melody in the first movement had lovely bel canto embellishments. The Scherzo had a light, airy opening, with wisps of arpeggiation ceding to a somewhat murky section with loud articulated bell rings. The Largo's main melody had the character of a melancholy dance on a salon piano, moving ahead as the Scherzo had been on the reserved side. The Finale also seemed on the reserved side in terms of tempo, which allowed Lortie to sculpt big booming octaves and careful voicings. An impressive performance, capped off by a single encore, a sparkling performance of a Chopin étude (op. 25, no. 1, in A-flat).

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.


Anonymous said...

Would that Nocturne have been op. 62 no. 1? That's the one with the trilled return of the A section. 32/1 ends with the dramatic recitative, and turn to B minor.

Terry said...

Cool picture. Louie Lortie will play Chopin Etudes Complete Op10 & 25 at Shriver Hall next April. Now that is worth the drive!

Charles T. Downey said...

Jeffrey: ooh, that's a good catch. I am almost certain that you caught an error there, which I copied from the program. I'll check my score to make sure.

Terry: thanks for that reminder, too. I'll do my best to hear Lortie again at Shriver Hall.

Charles T. Downey said...

As we all should have expected, Prof. Kallberg was right about that Chopin opus number, which I have corrected in the review. Thanks!