Louis Lortie is a Wonderful Musical Guide to Venice and Naples


Proms Chamber Music 6 – Rossini, Poulenc, Fauré, Liszt: Louis Lortie (piano), Cadogan Hall, London, 22.8.2016. (CS)

Rossini: Soirées musicales – No.2 ‘La regata veneziana’ (Notturno), No.9 ‘La danza’ (Tarantella) (transr. Liszt)
Poulenc: Napoli
Fauré: Barcarolle No.5 in F sharp minor Op.66; Barcarolle No.7 in D minor Op.90
Liszt: Venezia e Napoli S162 (1859)

French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie likes to spend the summer at his adopted holiday home by Lake Como and in the sixth of this season’s Proms Chamber Music concerts at Cadogan Hall he transported us from central London to Italy – to the waterways of Venice and the festive streets of Naples.

The inspiration for this ‘themed’ recital came from the first work, Rossini’s Soirées musicales.  Asked to include some music by Rossini – who is one of this year’s profiled composers at the Proms – Lortie, a great advocate of Liszt, settled upon two transcriptions made by the composer from Rossini’s popular songs and duets: a Venetian nocturne and a Neapolitan tarantella.  The rest of the programme slotted naturally into place, he explains in the programme note.

There was nothing ‘casual’ about this programme or its execution, though.  Lortie appeared a little tense as he entered the Cadogan Hall, but it may simply have been that he was so intensely focused that he barely noticed the audience, for he launched immediately into the brisk flourish of arpeggios which opens ‘La regata veneziana’ and the concentration and intelligence which he established in this opening ‘song’ did not waver throughout the recital.

There is nothing very reflective about Rossini’s ‘Notturno’: rather, it takes us on an evening stroll beside the canal, re-showing us the festal sights and sounds of the regatta.  Lortie conspiratorially let us hear the chattering conversations, tuneful songs and boisterous escapades of the revelling Venetians, beside the ever-rippling water.  The opening melody sparkled: the tone at the top of the Cadogan Hall’s Steinway was quite hard, and Lortie’s staccato dry, but the cheeky rubatos, lightening arpeggios, crisp ornaments and contrasting timbres in the lower registers were winning.  Despite Liszt’s elaborate decorations and variations the melody remained lucid.  In the final bars, the waters settled before one final flourish of celebratory exuberance.  The individual character of each of the varied dances of the bravura ‘La danza’ was perfectly defined, and tempi were judicious – fast enough to showcase the virtuosity required to execute Liszt’s tripping triplets, left-hand leaps and charging chordal passages, but slow enough to allow the grace and delicacy to equal the bombast.  Indeed, Lortie favoured a piano, even pianissimo, dynamic, saving the ostentation for the swaggering major-key episode which opened out richly and joyfully.  The rhythmic evenness and clarity of the voicing were impressive.

Poulenc began the three-movement suite, Napoli, during a visit to Italy in 1922, though it was not completed until 1925.  The flowing cantilena of the opening ‘Barcarolle’ was playful, the cross-rhythms rocking animatedly.  All was light and airy, as the register widened in the slowly relaxing closing bars to span a resounding pedal in the bass and a fragile melody in the uppermost reaches.  The rippling arpeggios which commence ‘Nocturne’ and the evenness of the stepwise right-hand melody established a dreamy wistfulness, but this was unsettled by the fragmentary and more dissonant episode that followed.  Once again, the range of colours which Lortie drew from the piano was remarkable – the beauty and resonance of the bass melody was striking here – as was his ability to move from lyricism to restlessness and back again.  The impossibly virtuosic ‘Caprice italien’, described by Poulenc as a dance in the style of Chabrier’s ‘Bourrée fantasque’, seemed to present no problems: Lortie raced through its busy merriments with carefree abandon, but never carelessness, and the slow song at the movement’s centre managed to sound genuinely melancholy and to tease us with a hint of disingenuousness.  Lortie conjured an improvisational quality as if the ideas were unfolding easily and spontaneously.  The powerful rumbling close was imposing and exciting.

Next month Lortie releases a new recording of Fauré’s solo piano music (CHAN 10915), and we were offered a preview with two of the composer’s Barcarolles, the fifth in F sharp minor, and No.7 in D minor.  Lortie professes his excitement about this recording in the programme note, ‘I have been thinking about it for years and I am so much in love with this composer!  I cannot tell you the amount of love that has gone into it’, and this passionate commitment was abundantly evident in these thoughtful renditions.  Lortie seemed to drift into another world, clearly deeply involved with composer’s complex musical arguments and conundrums.  The initial dreaminess was quickly pushed aside by stormier waters in the F sharp minor Barcarolle; the music seemed to venture deeper and deeper into contemplative profundity.  The definition of the voicing and the care lavished on the phrasing were impressive, and once again there was an extemporaneous quality to the free-flowing movement and melodious.  The undulating final gestures floated away into the ether.  Barcarolle No.7 was more troubled in mien and Lortie’s journey through its unpredictable waterways was characterised by hues of infinite variety.

Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli brought our two Italian locations together and offered Lortie the opportunity once again to demonstrate the full range of colours and timbres that he could draw from the piano.  He also showed us how multi-dimensioned Liszt’s musical ideas are.  (Lortie performed the 1859 version, which Liszt added as a supplement to Années de pèlerinage II.)  There was a drifting charm and touching gracefulness in the opening ‘Gondoliera, canzone del Cavaliere Peruchini’ – the ornaments, sustained trills and tremolandos were astonishingly tight and crisp – alongside virtuosic agility.  The gentle lulling strains of the close were brushed aside by the agitated trills which open the succeeding ‘Canzone’, a movement which returned us to Rossini, for the movement is a paraphrase of the Dante-quoting gondolier’s song from the composer’s opera, Otello (‘Nessun maggior dolor’).  Just how did Lortie make the low, left-hand chordal tremolos so pianissimo, and against them counterpoise an exquisite melody which shone effortlessly and lightly?  Given the range covered and the number of notes played, surely he has more than five fingers on each hand!  But the virtuosity never veered towards showmanship; rather, it served to convey the tragedy of the original text.  The ridiculously complex ‘Tarantella da Guillaume Louis Cottrau’ similarly revealed Lortie’s musical intelligence and stunning pianism.  The lightning runs were flawless, and transparent – so that we could hear the leaps and hops of the tarantella.  The central song crooned sweetly, welling occasionally with Romantic passion.

In this recital, Lortie demonstrated the astonishing range of his virtuosity, giving a performance that was both commanding and eloquent.

Claire Seymour

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