An Outstanding Liszt Recital from Louis Lortie as the Anniversary Year Draws to a Close

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt: Louis Lortie (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 4.12.2011 (MB)

Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième Année, ‘Italie’, S 161
La lugubre gondola II, S 200
R.W. – Venezia, S 201
Venezia e Napoli, S 162

As Liszt year draws to a close, there has been much to savour, though there have been a good few disappointments too, not least the continued absence of works such as Christus and The Legend of St Elisabeth from London. Yet, if performances of the two piano concertos from Daniel Barenboim, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Pierre Boulez have provided my absolute highlight, shortly followed by a revelatory recital of music by Liszt and twentieth-century composers from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, then I can think of nothing else to rank above this Wigmore Hall recital from Louis Lortie. He certainly put to shame Evgeny Kissin, let alone Leslie Howard.

The first half was given over to the second, Italian book of the Années de pèlerinage, performed by Lortie on his Fazioli as a single work, permitting – let us give thanks – neither pauses for applause nor for further bronchial discharge. (There was enough of the latter as it was, in addition to the curious and aggravating case of a man seated on the back row loudly turning pages throughout. I assumed that he was following a score, but it turned out that he was reading a tatty paperback.) ‘Sposalizio’ displayed kinship to Debussy – the inevitable thought is always of the E major Arabesque – which once again went to show quite how far back Liszt’s ‘Impressionism’ may be dated. That did not mean, however, that there was any stinting on muscular pianism where required, likewise rapt sublimity in contemplation of Raphael’s inspirational painting. ‘Il Penseroso’ was powerfully sculpted, with proper weight accorded to Liszt’s premonitions of old age, whilst the Canzonetta provided a nicely jaunty interlude, prior to the Petrarch Sonnets. Lortie captured perfectly the essence of song transformed into piano music. Melody was given its due, but so was the fantastical instrumental alchemy of Liszt the master pianist, never more so than in the filigree decoration of no.104. If I were to be hyper-critical, there was a slight hardening of tone in no.123, but it was not a serious problem. Throughout, one could not but admire the command of line and quasi-vocal modulation. Lortie’s delicacy of pianissimo touch in no.123 truly permitted the final bars to melt away. The Dante Sonata was marked as much by quiet desolation (relatively speaking) and signs of hope as hell fire. Not that Lortie’s rendition lacked virtuosity, but it was never permitted, quite rightly, to become an end in itself. Lohengrin-like shimmering and indeed glimpses of that typically Lisztian paradox, beatific yearning familiar from the Sonnets, were almost equally apparent. Crucially, narrative became structure rather than standing in opposition. (For the most part, the ‘problem’ with programme music lies solely in the heads of those who do not understand what it is.)

The second half moved us to Venice. First off were two of Liszt’s late, dark jewels: the second version of La lugubre gondola and R.W. – Venezia. La lugubre gondola opened in somewhat disappointing fashion, not just unrelievedly stark, but prosaic. Lortie’s performance, however, was transformed with the coming of the lapping waves: not for the first time, I was put in mind of Luigi Nono’s Venice, his Prometeo especially. Unease was powerfully conveyed and the final upward whole-tone line duly chilled. Wagner’s fate was surely sealed, one felt, after this Lisztian premonition of death in 1882. R.W. – Venezia was dark, weighty, desolate without relief. There was an excellent sense of would-be exultancy that simply could not climax. After that, there was ambiguous relief to be heard in ‘Gondoliera’, the first number in Liszt’s Venetian and Neapolitan supplement to the Italian book. Melodic delights found themselves, in a wonderfully dramatic touch of programming, overshadowed by the disconsolate tragedy of the Wagner elegies. Following a fine reading of ‘Canzone,’ the Tarantella was slightly less successful, losing its way a little towards the beginning, and too matter of the fact in conclusion. That said, there was much to satisfy in between. Some might prefer musical exhibitionism here, but Lortie’s solid musical virtues, above all once more an unbroken line from which to spin, are ultimately far more durable qualities. A sparkling, Ravel-like performance of ‘Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este,’ from the Third Book, provided a fine encore. On the evidence of this recital, Lortie’s recently released set for Chandos of the complete Années de pèlerinage will be very well worth hearing.

Mark Berry