Louis Lortie talks to Geoffrey Newman
There are few Canadian musicians who have exhibited such consistency, versatility and high standards in performance as Montreal-born pianist Louis Lortie. After teenage debuts with both the Montreal and Toronto Symphonies in the 1970s, followed by prize-winning finishes in the 1984 Busoni and Leeds Competitions, Lortie has now released almost 50 CDs for Chandos Records, covering repertoire from the Classics to the Moderns. His pianism has always stood out as poetic, elegant and tonally beautiful, with a capacity for refinement on one hand and virtuoso strength and weight on the other.
Early recording highlights include the complete Ravel piano works, a complete cycle of Beethoven Sonatas and some fine discs of Chopin and Liszt. He has now recorded all Liszt’s Works for Piano and Orchestra and released an acclaimed reading of the complete Années de pèlerinage. He is also finishing off an extended project devoted to Chopin’s complete piano works. Recent recordings include the five Saint-Saëns Piano Concertos with Edward Gardner and BBC Philharmonic and the start of a new Fauré series. There are two recordings as well with long-time piano duo partner, Hélène Mercier: Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Two Pianos and Rachmaninoff’s complete works for two pianos. Lortie was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1992. He last appeared with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in May 2019 playing Beethoven’s Concerto No.2 (review click here).
Geoffrey Newman: One of your big events last year was your 60th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall in April, where you played a wonderful two-and-a-half hours of all three books of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage.
Louis Lortie: I’ve performed all three books together since 2011, when I also performed it at Wigmore Hall and recorded them for Chandos. I felt then that it’s one of those programmes I want to keep with me and come back to every year or two. I’ve done it a lot recently and, of course, it has become something different with time. What’s great about such a long evening is that you can develop and balance all the variety in Liszt’s writing. You don’t have to always be immersed in profundity; there’s room for a great deal of lighter expression too.
GN: Speaking of recording for Chandos, it amazes me that you have now been with this label for over three decades.
LL: Yes, I’ve never had to think about another recording contract: it’s been so stable. I got together with them in my mid-twenties, only a few years after the company was formed by Brian Couzens. When I started, Chandos was mainly interested in English music and a few special projects, and just considering the possibility of moving to more standard repertoire. And they had few pianists. So I immediately filled some gaps for them. However, I was not actually looking for a recording contract at that time.
GN: How did the contract come about?
LL: It was really coincidental. In 1984, I won the Busoni Competition and was a medal winner in the Leeds Competition. The latter was televised in the UK, so it was likely that people from Chandos had watched me briefly in the finals. It just happened that, less than a year later, Chandos arrived in Montreal to make their historic recording of the two Shostakovich Piano Concertos with grandson Dmitri Jr. on the piano and son Maxim directing I Musici de Montréal. Somehow both of them got stuck somewhere – the plane wasn’t on time or something – and they needed a pianist to make sure the works were really well-rehearsed. This was not organized by Chandos but by the local people. They knew I was around and inquired if I had those concertos in my repertoire. I didn’t, but they asked if I could learn them in 48 hours, which I agreed to. I got the scores, learned them as best I could, arrived at the rehearsal, sat down and at least went through the motions with the orchestra.
The Chandos team arrived and initially wondered who I was. It eventually clicked: I was the ‘fellow from Leeds’. They apparently liked my rehearsals and asked if I had a recording contract. I said, ‘No, I just started’. Brian Couzens was there in person and countered, ‘Would you like to have one?’ So that was how it came to be! I was amazed that the company’s founder would be there, but that is what the label’s early days were like.
GN: In retrospect, do you think Chandos was the right choice?
LL: I’ve likely been able to build up my recorded repertoire much more easily than if I had started with a high-end contract. If one begins with Deutsche Grammophon and the Berlin Philharmonic, it puts a lot of pressure on you. It’s a different image, and it’s more difficult in the long term. You start by having to prove yourself in specific mainline repertoire, and you are almost too famous from the outset. Then perhaps the number of your concert appearances drop, and everyone immediately thinks that your career is not going well. In some ways, it’s ridiculous: maybe you just want to lead a more normal life, which is 50 to 60 concerts a year, not 120! You can do 120 a year, but will you survive? The last time I saw Yuja Wang, she played seven encores on top of a long and demanding programme. Even though she’s young and full of energy, I want to protect her. She needs to have big fees coming in four times a week to do that much.
GN: So, what’s your secret in maintaining your concert touring schedule over many decades?
LL: For me, it’s the art of living. When you are touring, you have to keep things interesting and also make it as much as possible like normal life. What’s inspiring about touring is meeting interesting people all over the world and seeing interesting places. If you stay in your hotel room, all you know is the hall and the piano you’re playing on. You’re missing it completely. At one point, you will get into problems. It’s not life.
When I accept a concert, it’s very much because I like the surroundings too. There’s no point in going to places where you don’t have positive vibes from the environment and the city. This is my first priority, and that’s why I still feel fresh. The world is changing, so you have to adapt to the good things that are possible. Now there’s Airbnb. It was there for years but I was slow in getting on it. I used to think that when you have a concert, you should be in a first-rate hotel and not have any noise, but now I’ve decided, let’s be cool and try it. When I was in Vancouver, I found a cottage close to the most beautiful hikes and trees. It’s at the foot of Mount Seymour, near the Baden Powell trail. So that’s my kick these days: to get to know the world in a different way using new apps. Of course, it took me time to find the right place: you have to read all the reviews and be your own travel manager.
GN: You’ll be like Anthony Bourdain!
LL: Yes, I really like good food too, and with the internet it’s easy to find good places. I also rented a car this time, so I could drive to my practice facilities.
GN: Many pianists think the worst thing about touring is all the different pianos you must confront. Do you agree?
LL: Yes, changing pianos every day is very tiring. And we have a lot of halls these days with pianos that shouldn’t be there. They are all right for practicing but not for performing. Symphony orchestras have to be convinced that they cannot get along with their ‘old’ piano forever. It’s bad for the orchestra’s reputation as well as the pianist’s. Maybe Beethoven’s piano music can survive anything, but lyrical repertoire cannot. There, you hear the difference, and the audience inevitably thinks it’s the artist’s failing.
GN: Is this one reason you’ve switched to Fazioli?
LL: I haven’t really switched. It’s difficult in the UK to rent good pianos, and I have a very fine practice facility with the Fazioli dealer in London. That’s why I started to use Fazioli a lot of the time. And it’s a blessing: Fazioli has a friendly action that doesn’t tire you when you do hours and hours of repetition. After all, you don’t want to strain your muscles and your back! In Vancouver, I was grateful to Showcase Pianos for providing a Fazioli for my complete two-week stay – this luxury is good for my system.
GN: Do you find a marked difference in concert ‘culture’ these days relative to the past?
LL: Yes, you must adjust much more to what a presenter wants. Of course, in the famous big city venues, you can perform pretty much anything – there’s an audience for almost everything. But outside the music capitals, you must be more careful, especially if the presenter needs to fill a large hall. I am now increasingly sensitive to what repertoire fits with the series being presented, the size of the venue and attendance concerns. I think most concertgoers still like to ‘explore’ different repertoire, but if a presenter wants to venture outside the mainline, they might be advised to put Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony on the programme too.
Recently, I was able to perform the complete Fauré solo piano cycle in Montreal – and, yes, the hall was full. Montreal is not a small city, but the programme was relatively daring. It greatly helped that the presenter had a benefactor who would write the cheque in any case. Here I had complete freedom to explore repertoire I love, but that’s rare. I try to respect the presenter’s problems: if they’re relying on box office, I’m understanding. I run a festival myself now, so I know the problems.
GN: Over the years, concertgoers have become well accustomed to your superb tone control and the elegance and beauty of your articulation. I know you studied with Leon Fleisher in your twenties, but it’s evident that your technical virtuosity was put in place much before that.
LL: Fleisher was probably the teacher I had more lessons with than anyone else, but we didn’t work so much on fingering or those sorts of things. That was my first teacher, Yvonne Hubert, who I studied with when I was eight or nine years old; she also taught Marc-André Hamelin. She was an absolute goddess for fingering, and I received amazing schooling. She would take each score and write the fingerings on it for my next lesson. These weren’t just any fingerings: she was a student of Cortot, so these were the clever ones he wrote on all her scores. (I still have these scores.) After that, I knew exactly what to do with any passage. You could even call me on the phone, and I could tell you exactly what to do. It made things so much easier.
Fleisher taught me other important things, like how to use the top part of my body, and the forearm in particular. I studied with him when I was 20, and there were still a lot of bad things I did at that age. Like, I moved my head a lot. Noting this, he said something that I will never forget: ‘Who do you think you are, Stevie Wonder?’ I thought, ‘Wow, it must have really looked bad if he said something like that’. It was completely helpful, as were all the smaller things he noted. I played almost all the Beethoven sonatas for him. Even if he didn’t have the score in front of him, it was all in his head. He would say on a moment’s notice, ‘I think you forgot a fermata somewhere’. He just remembered everything: he had performed so many of the works himself. There are great teachers who know a lot of repertoire, but it’s perhaps even a greater experience to study with a teacher who knows each work so intimately.
GN: Have you thought of your playing as in the Gallic tradition?
LL: Not really. By age 16, I was studying Beethoven with Dieter Weber in Vienna. Unlike many trained in the French system, I played a lot of Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven early on. In fact, apart from Ravel, it’s only in the last five or six years that I’m doing much French music. My early weakness was the Russian repertoire: I did play all the concertos of Rachmaninoff, mind you.
GN: Do you have any feelings for how your interpretations have evolved over time? I recall a concert of the complete Chopin Études I saw in London in the mid-1990s, which was full of sparkle and transparency, but I find your current Chopin somehow weightier and more decisive.
LL: With age, one hopes there is a greater sense of purpose in the playing, but I haven’t analyzed it much. Music critics like you are better equipped to judge. They have their CD and performance references, things that I occasionally look into but usually don’t have time for. With the Études in particular, the real question is how much longer am I going to keep playing them: at my age, most people have stopped. I’m actually surprised that I’m still able to programme them. At the muscular level, it’s a challenge, but it keeps me in shape.
GN: Would you give a similar answer for your current Beethoven playing?
LL: No. With the Beethoven sonatas, I notice an overwhelming difference. I’m going back to them all for the 2020 Beethoven celebration in Montreal, and apparently these will be filmed. For some music, like the Chopin Études, perhaps your first draft is best. But with the Beethoven sonatas, going back to them makes for a profound change, and I’ve seen a huge transformation in my playing. I think that with an immense personality like Beethoven’s, when you’re young, you overreact. In my previous cycle, I didn’t like overstating the aggressive aspect of Beethoven (as many younger pianists do), so I looked more to the poetic side. Now I see a bigger picture altogether. This is not just from reading more biographies (though I do read them): it’s from re-examining the score.
GN: Let’s move to your versatility as a performer. I recall a unique concert with the VSO – just under a decade ago – where you played a Bach concerto on the harpsichord, directed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 from the piano, then conducted the full orchestra in Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation’ Symphony after the interval.
LL: Yes, I remember – I did the Bach F minor. When we were getting the concert arranged, I was told that I had to play some Bach because the series was called ‘Bach and Beyond’. But Bach’s not really my thing: it’s always such a nightmare to get the right balance with the orchestra. In any case, I agreed to do the shortest concerto, the F minor, along with something else. Then I thought about it a bit, and it came to me: ‘Wait a minute. I was in Vancouver a few years ago, and I heard one of the most incredible concerts ever on the harpsichord. It was Ton Koopman and his wife playing the Art of the Fugue on a wonderful instrument. So, if we could just find that instrument, and the orchestra would agree to use only a small number of players, that would be perfect’. The VSO had recently hired Australian Dale Barltrop as concertmaster, who it turns out had done a lot of Baroque. The answer came immediately, ‘We’d be enchanted to do that, and we love to play Baroque music the way it should be played!’ I was amazed: it was just three weeks before the concert. So I ended up playing Bach on a cembalo with authentic forces. I studied the instrument a lot when I was an adolescent, and I love playing it. Not fortepiano for Bach; I really love Bach on the harpsichord. Most symphony orchestras wouldn’t have wanted to try this, let alone allow me to conduct the entire concert: the Bach, Mozart K467 and the Mendelssohn.
GN: How strongly would you advocate conducting Mozart from the piano?
LL: Well, you still have orchestral conductors leading Mozart concertos, and you still have Mozart with the piano lid on, where the winds don’t hear a thing you’re doing. Mozart would have thought this was absurd! I think you can do most of it yourself. This type of music always has to be performed in a special way: if the winds don’t hear what the piano is doing, it won’t work. It’s all chamber music.
GN: What about doing the larger concertos this way?
LL: I’m supposed to do both Chopin concertos with the Warsaw Philharmonic – conducting from the piano. That’s a coming project with Chandos. If the orchestra knows the piece, and if you have a good relationship with them, a lot of Romantic concertos can work well that way. I’ve done the Grieg, Saint-Saëns 2 and Liszt 2 without a conductor, and it was absolutely wonderful. A lot of orchestras love it because they feel very involved, almost as if they are possessing the piece.
GN: With all these talents and viewpoints, you must be an interesting teacher to take a lesson with.
LL: Having done a lot of conducting, I am naturally concerned about voicings and that a pianist knows the full concerto score. I initially have my students recognize that the piano, unlike other instruments, is very passive, where you can just put your foot on the pedal and pretend to make a long legato sound. Young pianists can be lazy in this respect and get into a lot of bad habits with the pedal. I tell them to practice without any pedal, and do all the voices separately. I also encourage my students to at least try conducting to get the bigger picture. I tell them that when you play a piano, it’s a piece of wood and you can torture it all you want. But you cannot torture the people in an orchestra. You have to know how to behave, and how to get the best out of them with your personal chemistry.
GN: How are you enjoying your current teaching in Belgium?
LL: I teach at the Queen Elizabeth Chapel in Waterloo, 20 minutes by car from Brussels. It’s where Napoleon had the famous battle – and I really like the life here. The chapel, built in the 1930s, was originally a modest art deco building, but they have built a fantastic new wing, and all the students live there. Each student has their own soundproof studio with a piano. I only take a maximum of seven or eight students. I head up the piano department while Augustin Dumay leads the violin studies. There’s lots of room for collaboration: I play with his students and he plays with mine. We also play together, and have so far recorded 2 CDs of the Strauss, Franck and Brahms Violin Sonatas. I should mention that he has taught one young Canadian violinist from Ottawa, Carson Leong, who I think is fantastic. I’ve never seen anyone blossom like this. He’s just amazing and will become huge.
GN: Another thing that distinguishes your career is how you have kept up your piano duo with Hélène Mercier.
LL: There’s such an incredible literature for piano four hands that we never hear anymore. We used to play these pieces at home when we did those sorts of things – but it’s all fading away now. At least we have some pianists who still perform the two-piano repertoire! Hélène and I have known each other forever, and while she lives a completely different life now, this has not affected how we play together. Our earliest recording – in the 1990s – combined the Mozart Sonata with the Schubert Fantasy. We continue to do a few performances every year, mostly in Europe because we both live there. We have recently recorded the Poulenc and Vaughan Williams two-piano concertos, plus Rachmaninoff’s pieces for two pianos.
GN: There are a lot of other composers, like Debussy, to name an obvious one, that I expect you perform and might record at some point.
LL: I actually perform the Debussy Preludes and other pieces a lot, and I probably play more Debussy than Ravel these days. But I would scarcely suggest recording these when Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s Debussy has been one of Chandos’s great prize-winning success stories. My Debussy would probably be quite different than his, but I have great respect for his vision. He’s a great friend, a very engaging person, and I studied with his wife at the same time in Vienna when we were young. Chandos now has a number of wonderful pianists, and I’m happy to let them have their priorities while I have mine. I’ve performed plenty of Brahms and Schubert too, but have no plans to record them.
GN: Does Chandos sometimes suggest projects that might be slightly foreign to you?
LL: Sometimes. Ralph Couzens suggested for years that I do the five Saint-Saëns piano concertos, but I had little interest. It wasn’t the type of project that I was really thinking of getting into at my age. But then I thought, ‘Why not? Sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself with something different’. Also, the market has heated up for these concertos in the last few decades: for example, Hyperion led with the famous version by Stephen Hough.
I started out by just trying the first concerto, then moved to the second and said to myself, ‘Well, I’ve only got three to go’. When I found the right orchestra and conductor [Edward Gardner], I thought, ‘Okay I’m up for the challenge. Let’s do it’. It turned out to be a very interesting project: you really have to have the chops and incredible facility. It’s Concerto No.3 which is problematic: you can’t believe how hard we worked on this! Gardner was amazing. In some passages in the very fast movements, he didn’t care if I had limitations. He just went and made the tuttis as bouncing and cheerful as possible. It really challenged me: you can’t play with any caution here.
GN: So, tell me a bit about how your festival at Lake Como came to be.
LL: Last summer was our third season of the LacMus Festival, and we started from nothing. The idea was mentioned to me a number of years ago, but I strongly resisted. My idea of Lake Como is rest and walks, and the last thing I wanted to discover was the workings of the Italian bureaucracy. When I see water and mountains, I’m usually a happy man with that alone! Yet everyone kept talking, including the mayor, who also happens to be a very cultured man. Ultimately, I was convinced. We started by just doing five concerts in one weekend in the first festival – as a little test – and it was so successful that everyone said we had to do more. We formed an association, and things just started rolling. More donors came on board, and now we have access to some of the most incredible outside music settings in the world, including villas with incredible views. The problem was: what do you do in case of bad weather? Fortunately, there was a school nearby that was building an auditorium. We went immediately to the mayor and said, ‘Listen, this would be an occasion. There are no really decent concert spaces between Milan and Zurich, so why don’t you put some good materials and design in the project?’ They listened, and did all the work. Even though the ceiling was a bit low, the acoustics turned out to be great.
GN: How did last year’s festival go?
LL: Very well. We aimed bigger: two full weekends with 12 concerts total, and we put a team together with everything online (programme). I did a lot of fundraising, which takes time, with a lot of dinners, a lot of meeting people – but it was interesting. We had our own chamber orchestra too, with 14 different nationalities represented. I played in some of the concerts and I am proud to say that harpsichordist Ton Koopman came in his 75th birthday year. Part of that inspiration goes right back to when I heard him in Vancouver. I thought, ‘If I ever have my own festival, I have to get this man to come’. Emmanuel Pahud came and brought his wind ensemble, and the fine violinist Gary Levinson, Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony, participated in a number of different concerts. I also presented some of the young musicians from my class.
GN: That sounds inspiring. Let’s close by visiting a few long-standing Canadian connections. I know your association with the Toronto Symphony goes back a long way since I still recall your 1978 Liszt ‘debut’ performance with the orchestra, just before you headed off on a tour of China and Japan with a newly-appointed Andrew Davis.
LL: Yes, I performed with Sir Andrew and the TSO again last year. I have fond memories of concerts with all the Canadian orchestras. With the Vancouver Symphony, I have enjoyed playing with Bramwell Tovey on multiple occasions, and I remember special concerts from the 1990s too: for example, performing Rach 2 with that wonderful man and musician, Sergiu Comissiona. Hélène Mercier and I also first visited Vancouver around the same time. And I used to play some chamber music with violinist James Ehnes, though I never managed to get to his Seattle Chamber Music Festival.
I thank the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Showcase Pianos for making this interview possible. I am indebted to Kelly Bao for transcription assistance.
Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.