Wigmore Mondays – Louis Lortie plays Chopin

Louis Lortie (piano)

George Benjamin Shadowlines (6 Canonic Preludes) (2001)

Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Louis Lortie has a long-held affinity with the music of Chopin, and that was abundantly clear in the affection with which he played the composer’s 24 Preludes.

Completed in 1839, they are an extraordinary set of pieces that travel through each of the conventional Western tonal centres in the course of just 40 minutes. Chopin structures them cleverly, pairing them up so that each prelude appearing in a major key (for instance the first one in C major) is followed by its closest relative in a minor key (in this case A minor). The series proceeds using the ancient ‘cycle of fifths’, so that after ‘C’ we move to ‘G’, then ‘D’, and so on until a complete circuit is reached.

Previous exponents of this sort of cycle include Bach, whose famous ‘48’ also uses all the keys, but moves in a stepwise movement from C to C sharp, then D. In visiting the form Chopin was clearly aware of Bach’s efforts in the previous century, for he took the music with him on holiday to Majorca, where some of the preludes were written.

Lortie brought the cycle to life (from 18:06 on the broadcast link provided), with some of the shorter pieces reeled off at dazzling speed. The quick ones, for instance those in G major (21:02) or a particularly stormy affair in F sharp minor (27:29) were on occasion a bit too swift for the phrasing to be abundantly clear, but when he spent time over the melancholic no.4 in E minor (21:57), or the serious no.6 in B minor (24:37), the melodies were beautifully shaped, the depth of feeling immediately evident.

The natural centrepiece of the cycle is no.15 in D flat major, known as the Raindrop (from 36:27). It is at least twice as long as any of the others but also contains at its heart a very strong reference to plainchant, the speculation being that Chopin was capturing a haunted abbey in his writing. It looks forward to Debussy in this sense, and Lortie played it with the grandeur it deserved. Following it with the whirlwind B flat minor prelude (41:50) was the storm after the calm, the whirlwind superbly energised.

A beautifully crafted finish included the delicacy of the F major prelude from 51:35) and the stern countenance of the final D minor prelude (52:25), carrying its head high to put a cap on a superb performance of 24 strongly characterised pieces.

A little less effective were the 6 Canonic Preludes by George Benjamin, written so that whatever is played in one part has to be shadowed by the other. Some of the pieces were effective characterisations, not a million miles from Schoenberg’s mysterious piano pieces, but others felt emptier emotionally. Lortie played them superbly, but perhaps repeated hearing on the broadcast will bring them to life.

Further listening

Lortie is in the process of recording the complete piano works of Chopin, and his first album in the series for Chandos is a great next step after the Preludes, containing as it does the great Piano Sonata no.2.

BBC Proms 2016 – Louis Lortie: Venezia e Napoli

louis-lortie

Louis Lortie (piano) © Elias

Rossini, transcribed Liszt La regata veneziana; La danza (1830-35, transcr. 1837)

Poulenc Napoli (1925)

Fauré Barcarolle no.5 in F sharp minor Op.66 (1894); Barcarolle no.7 in D minor Op.90 (1905)

Liszt Venezia e Napoli (1859)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 22 August 2016

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

For an hour Louis Lortie managed to transport the Cadogan Hall audience to even sunnier climes – to Venice and Napoli, to be exact. He did this through a well constructed program painting pictures of the Italian cities and regions from afar, for none of the chosen composers were Italian.

All except Rossini, that is – though the two Soirées Musicales chosen for this concert were given in arrangements made by Liszt. Typically these were hyped up for concert audiences, but as in most of Liszt’s transcriptions there is a sensitive side staying true to the original, and Lortie found that unerringly in the humour of La danza.

We transferred from Venice to Naples for Francis Poulenc’s brief but vivid three-movement portrait. The central Nocturne was the great find here, a really lovely bit of descriptive music bookended by two fast movements typical of Poulenc in their wit and, in the Caprice italien, a deceptively soft heart that Lortie delighted in showing us.

It was especially good to hear two of Fauré’s Barcarolles included, especially as Louis Lortie has realised his love of the composer’s music in a new disc from Chandos. The Barcarolles are real diamonds, perfect for listening at either end of the day, and are highly original in their elevation of an older art form all but ignored by other composers. Lortie showed concert audiences need not be dissuaded by them either, with a darkly shaded Barcarolle no.7, which found some of the Fauré’s shadowy writing encroaching from the edges like the approach of night. Meanwhile the distinctive motif of the Barcarolle no.5 was ever-present, though towards the end of this the pianist was too full with his volume at the bell-like top end of the register.

That said, his playing throughout was remarkably accurate and expressive, and both qualities were evident in a superb performance of Venezia e Napoli, the epilogue to part two of Liszt’s piano travelogue Années de Pèlerinage. The virtuosity on show was breathtaking in the final Tarantella, but it was the poetic depiction of the gondola and the slower Canzone, with its majestic interpretation of Rossini’s Otello, that really hit home.

Ben Hogwood

On record: Poulenc – Works for piano and orchestra

Featured recording: Poulenc – Works for piano and orchestra (Chandos)
poulenc-lortie

Louis Lortie, a French-Canadian pianist, teams up with conductor Ed Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for a disc presenting Poulenc’s complete music for piano and orchestra, as well as some of his works for two pianos. Here he is joined by regular duet partner Hélène Mercier.

What’s the music like?

Poulenc is well-loved among 20th century composers, often for his gift of writing bittersweet melodies that make the listener smile – such as the oboe theme that dominates the Rondeau section of the Aubade for piano and orchestra, the second work on this disc.

Poulenc is a cheeky composer, thumbing his nose behind your back in a sense, and as with most French composers the imaginative and colourful orchestrations bring the music to life. Every so often Poulenc throws in a turn of musical phrase that makes the listener smile, with an exaggerated gesture here or a knowing chord progression there.

This new collection from Chandos brings together an impressive range of writing. The Piano Concerto is perhaps not as popular as it might be, for it often sparkles in this performance, and that label certainly applies to the entertaining and multi-faceted Aubade from 1929. This work, Roger Nichols informs us in his authoritative booklet note, was written in one of the composer’s depressive bouts, and it tells the story of how the huntress Diana is driven to suicide by her own ‘love that the gods forbid’.

The brief works for two pianos included here are greatly affecting – the doleful Élégie and the free-spirited L’Embarquement pour Cythère especially – while the concise Sonata packs an energetic punch. When writing for two pianos and orchestra in the Concerto Poulenc must have had great fun, for this is full of frolics – but with the customary cautionary notes just beneath the surface.

Does it all work?

Yes. This collection is consistently entertaining, played with great enthusiasm and affection and recorded in such a way that the light and shade of the composer’s writing is fully revealed.

The Aubade is at times po-faced but has an almost ever present glint in the eye, as though it can’t resist cracking a joke amongst the downward thoughts. In the double concerto, Mercier and Lortie enjoy sparkling and spiky exchanges between pianos and orchestra, and in the finale there is what sounds like a clockwork mechanism towards the end.

The tender second movement of the Sonata for two pianos is beautifully done, before the finale scurries away.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Poulenc is a charmer on record, and can be enjoyably brash too. The performers here do him proud.

Listen on Spotify

This particular recording is not on the streaming service, but samples from each track can be heard here