Louis Lortie Marks His Sixtieth Birthday with an Extraordinary Lisztian Pilgrimage

30/04/2019

Liszt: Louis Lortie (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 28.4.2019. (MB)

Louis Lortie

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, première année: ‘Suisse’, S 160; Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année: ‘Italie’, S 161; Années de pèlerinage, troisième année, S 163

On 27 April, Louis Lortie celebrated his sixtieth birthday. I can only presume the celebrations were not unduly arduous, since he played all three books of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage – omitting only the ‘Venezia e Napoli’ supplement to the second book – the following evening at the Wigmore Hall. If the best parties are a gift from the host to those invited, then this must surely rank amongst them. Some of these pieces one hears with reasonable frequency in the concert hall, although even the best-known come nowhere near over-familiarity: this is Liszt, not Chopin. Some, one rarely hears at all: there were certainly some I, a keen Lisztian, was hearing for the first time in concert. But to hear them all together proved decidedly more than the sum of its parts. It was an extraordinary feat, yes, but more than that, it was a welcome tribute; more than that too, it was an opportunity to hear the composer’s development, transformation, and ongoing truthfulness to his inner self over a period of almost half a century.

The chronology is complex, and here is not the place to go into detail, but many of the pieces in the first, ‘Swiss’ book, published in 1855, have their roots in pieces written in the second half of the 1830s, later published as the 1842 Album d’un voyageur. The Romantic idea of the wayfarer thus becomes inscribed in the chronology and, implicitly at least, in the hearing and rehearing, performance and re-performance under way before a note has even been played. At any rate, the opening ‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’ left one in no doubt concerning its Schillerian genesis, its declamatory opening – so often with Liszt, as with Berlioz and Wagner, musical lines strain to speak, as if recitative without words – preparing the way to yield, yet also announcing the instrument itself (here a bright-toned Fazioli) as equal progenitor to music both general and specific. Very much a curtain-raiser, it ended open-endedly, ushering us ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’. Perhaps Lortie might have yielded more there, but there was something fascinating in hearing the ‘sigh of the waves and the cadence of the oars’ (Marie d’Agoult, quoted in Kenneth Hamilton’s programme note) founded upon a rock-solid basso continuo. Poetic musico-historical licence? As often with Liszt: yes and no. The ensuing ‘Pastorale’ echoed Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sonata as much as the Swiss countryside, placing both strands in magical dialogue, leading us ‘Au bord d’une source’, in which Lortie showed himself unafraid to use plenty of pedal for atmosphere, creating a wash of fioriture such as to send puritans – whatever Liszt may have been, he was certainly not that – dashing for cover. The ‘Orage’ that followed would surely have left them cowed: splendidly grandiloquent in a virtuosity that, for composer and pianist alike, never came near ‘mere’ virtuosity.

If melodic lines had spoken in ‘Guillaume Tell’, they sang, as if lines from Eugene Onegin or some other such Romantic opera, in ‘Vallée d’Obermann’. As the melody passed between the hands, gorgeous harmonies – never ‘merely’ gorgeous – spoke and sang of nobility and idealism as much as Nature and sensual experience. Seraphic passion, melting belligerence: opposites attracted and confused in typically Romantic fashion. This may have fallen more than midway through the book; it nonetheless felt like its heart. And so, the ‘Eglogue’ sounded as if a reinvention of the ‘Pastorale’ – until, that is, like the book as a whole, it very much went on its own way. ‘Le mal du pays’ came as a necessary corrective, the world’s darkness to the fore, its strange harmonies duly unsettling. Finally, the ringing of ‘Les cloches de Genève’ proceeded both with otherworldly purity and ‘impressionist’ presentiment. Corrosive – or potentially corrosive – sounds in the bass proved enigmatic rather than Mephistophelian, which is probably as it should be. They were, in any case, rare. Liszt’s citation here of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, ‘I live not in myself, but I become a portion of that around me’, sounded apt as ever.

‘Sposalizio’ took us immediately to the opening of a new volume, illuminated by no less than Raphael. Debussy’s First Arabesque seemed already to have been written and surpassed, confronted by the more strenuous humanism of Michelangelo in ‘Il penseroso’. The ‘Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa’, heavy-handed in its jauntiness, I have never been able to warm to, but surely I miss its point. The three Petrarch Sonnets, however, I have long adored – and did so here. No.47 came as blissful, Romantic relief: metrical freedom, melody, harmony, voice-leading as one in a vision of expectancy and ardour. No.104 complemented, contrasted, deepened, the music breathing ‘as if’ sung, rather than slavishly imitating; a piano is a piano, just as a pianist is a pianist. No.123 brought together and extended, dreamlike in the best sense, rhetoric at the service of musical poetry. There was much incentive to abandon hope as we entered the final number of the Italian Book, ‘Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata’, in a duly Catholic performance of deeply Catholic music. However fancifully, one could imagine Liszt sitting down at the piano to quasi-improvise this response to his reading of Dante. That fantasia quality is surely of the essence here, in a way it is not in the more ‘worked-out’ B minor Sonata; this is an album-leaf or set of album-leaves, however superior, and so it sounded here, in hallucinatory, self-transforming flow. It thrilled, but thrilled with substance: there is nothing ‘mere’ to this music.

The tolling of the ‘Angelus’ opened the third book: ‘Rome’ in all but name, as Hamilton notes, albeit with the strange exception of the funeral march for Mexico’s Emperor Maximilian. Here there was unquestionably a sense of time having passed: not quite the third act of Parsifal, but perhaps – again with Rome in mind – of Tannhäuser. Again, there was a sense, illusory or otherwise, of remembrance, of reinventing the worlds of the second book in particular: even the Salvator Rosa piece. (Yes, I had been wrong.) Again, there was nothing ‘mere’ to this act of remembrance, as Liszt took us on neue Bahnen (as Schumann had once foretold of Brahms). Or so we think. Is there anything new under the sun? Again, the answer came: yes and no. The exultancy achieved was, aptly, both genuine and a little tired. And how Liszt’s harmonies represented, in his celebrated phrase, the hurling of a ‘lance into the boundless realms of the future’.

Two threnodies followed, both responses to the idea – and doubtless the ‘reality’ – of ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este’. There was no denying the lateness here, but there was nothing generic either to music or performance; instead, we drew connections, noted and felt affinities, in a setting that afforded chiaroscuro whilst yet approaching twilight. The wonder one can feel in harmonic progression registered as strongly as ever – and more unnervingly. Here, especially in the second piece, was the melancholy of the (not quite) swansong. From cypresses to water, for ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’: the waters sparkled, whilst never quite effacing – why should they? – what had preceded them. Glitter surrounded a line as clear as anything in the first and second books, Liszt both the same and transformed. ‘Sunt lacrymae rerum’ offered further reminiscence, remembrance – whether that of Aeneas or something more personal to Liszt, to us – and incomplete, transformative synthesis. The ‘Marche funèbre’ likewise proved an idea familiar yet rethought, reimagined, reinterpreted, at least bordering on the realm of the ‘omnitonal’ the young Liszt had taken from the theorist, François-Joseph Fétis. But it is with the Eucharistic exhortation, ‘Sursum corda’ that the collection ends. There was darkness to the call, but there was likewise release from that darkness. Lortie relished this final piece in all its strangeness – strange, that is, so long as we listened. It could only have made sense coming as it did at the close; make sense of a sort, though, it did.

Mark Berry

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