Lortie’s sensitive and perceptive interpretations of music by Fauré and some who studied with him

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Louis Lortie (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 4.2.2024. (GPu)

Louis Lortie at the Wigmore Hall © The Wigmore Hall Trust

Fauré9 Préludes, Op.103; Pavane in F-sharp Minor, Op.50; Ballade, Op.19; Thème et variations, Op.73
Ravel Berceuse sur le nom de Fauré
Enescu Pièce sur le nom de Faurè
Louis AubertEsquisse sur le nom de Fauré
Florent SchmittHommage à Gabriel Fauré
Charles KoechlinHommage à Gabriel Fauré
Paul LadmiraultHommage à Gabriel Fauré

This was, quite simply, an outstanding recital of music by Fauré – or inspired by Fauré – every moment was a delight and I have no negative qualifications to make. Louis Lortie opened with authoritative and memorable accounts of the nine Préludes written relatively late in Fauré’s life, at a time when he was affected intermittently, though increasingly, by deafness. These fascinating pieces are played less frequently than the composer’s earlier piano works and it was a special joy to hear the full set played with such certainty of technique and understanding.

Though these pieces are miniatures (so far as length is concerned) they are densely packed with significance. They were all written within twelve months – during 1909 and 1910 – and none have descriptive or programmatic titles. It would be excessive to attempt discussion of all nine, as played by Lortie, but a few were so ‘perfect’ that it would be a serious omission if they went without comment. The stormy anger of the fifth, a kind of moto perpetuo, stood out all the more by way of contrast with the quiet introspection of its neighbours. Whether introspective or assertive, Lortie got to the heart of each piece. He was equally convincing, equally poetic, in the hectic semiquavers of No.2 and the dreamy yearning of No.4, a sicilienne with a decidedly French accent. In his excellent book Gabriel Fauré (1979) Robert Orledge describes (p.149) No.6 as ‘a tranquil three-part organ-like chorale prelude’ and certainly there were several moments in Lortie’s traversal of these preludes that one heard echoes of Bach. In my previous encounters with these Préludes I hadn’t so fully appreciated the beauty, the subtle weight of the work. Indeed, Lortie’s entire performance of the Préludes was something of a revelation, making me realise just how remarkable an achievement it is.

Twelve years after the publication of Fauré’s Préludes Henri Prunières, editor of the Revue Musicale, invited seven composers who had studied with Fauré – Ravel, Enescu, Aubert, Schmitt, Koechlin, Ladmirault and Roger Ducasse to write pieces in homage to Fauré, using one or both of two sets of pitches, GABDBEE and FAGDEE, created by the musical ‘translation’ of the letters of Fauré’s name. The resulting compositions were published in October 1922 as a special supplement (Hommage à Fauré) to the Revue Musicale.

Lortie closed the first half of his recital by playing six of these tributes, omitting that by Ducasse. The modal harmonies of Ravel’s Berceuse were played with appropriately loving gentleness, while the piece by Florent Schmitt responded to the more turbulent side of Faure’s sensibility. Koechlin’s Hommage tapped into the dedicatee’s love of Bach’s counterpoint. The piece by Paul Ladmirault (of whom Fauré was apparently particularly fond) has a central section which captures very accurately Fauré’s distinctive idiom of musical introspection. This section is framed by opening and closing passages which are more vivacious and vigorous.

After an interval, Lortie returned us to Fauré himself, playing three of the composer’s longer works for solo piano; his Pavane in F-sharp minor, Op.5 and the Ballade, Op.18, before closing with the monumental Theme and Variations, Op.73. The first of these was originally scored for orchestra, around 1887, with a version for piano being produced two years later. In stylistic terms it is a neo-classical idealisation of the historic Spanish court. Lortie’s subtle interpretation captured the piece’s nostalgia without wallowing in it, but also articulated its grandeur. It was, in short, a perceptive and beautifully balanced reading.

Fauré’s Ballade carries a dedication to Saint-Saëns. It falls naturally into three sections, linked in very individual fashion, whereby the main theme of each section reoccurs as a secondary theme in the next. There is an often-told story which tells of Fauré meeting the elderly Liszt at Weimar in 1877. Fauré showed the score of his Ballade to Liszt, who played the first few pages at sight, before stopping and saying words which have been variously translated as ‘as I don’t have fingers any more’ or ‘I don’t have enough fingers’. He could have meant that his technique was no longer what it had been or (less likely) that it was simply too difficult to play. Louis Lortie certainly had fingers sufficient for the performance of this complex piece, as evidenced in a powerfully striking interpretation. It seems to have been Liszt who suggested to Fauré that he make a version for piano and orchestra. Fauré did so, and this ‘concerto’ version has rather overshadowed the original in later years. Certainly, a successful performance of the solo version requires a pianist of considerable technique and imagination and a real understanding of Fauré; few, contemporary pianists could be better qualified for the task than Lortie, on the evidence of this performance, which was a model of clarity and of the skilled handling of transitions of mood and tempo.

The closing work in this fine recital was Fauré’s Theme and Variations. This is less ‘French’ in manner than most of the composer’s work, which probably reflects his love of Robert Schumann’s work; it has more than once been plausibly suggested that Fauré had in mind Schumann’s Études symphoniques when writing his own Themes and Variations.

Fauré’s theme is followed by eleven variations, each vividly characterised by Lortie. In the first variation Lortie delineated very lucidly the interaction of the two hands, as the march-like theme is heard in the left hand while the right hand spins a decorative web of higher notes. (I single out just a few of the variations for mention purely for the sake of brevity, not because the others were in any way unsatisfactory or disappointing). Variation three, with its many triplets, was delivered with delightful wit. Variation five is, in essence, a waltz, which Lortie endowed with unfussy elegance; in Variation six the left hand rises in octaves, while the right hand descends, a pattern which had a distinctive magic in Lortie’s performance. The ninth variation had a still and hushed serenity preparing the listener, by way of contrast for the tenth, a vivacious scherzo which closes with an impressive crescendo. An innocent listener might, indeed, mistake this for the end of the work. Fauré has other ideas, however; the great beauty of the eleventh and last variation, redefines the whole work; in the words of Robert Orledge, on which I cannot improve, (op.cit., p.95) it ‘raises the whole work onto a higher, almost religious plane’.

This remarkable work, wide-ranging and constantly thought-provoking, is enough in itself to show up the blindness of that view of Fauré as little more than a composer of salon miniatures, a view which still survives, as I know from conversations with friends. Louis Lortie’s recital deepened my own understanding and appreciation of Fauré’s works for the piano.

Lortie was prevailed upon to play three brief encores, announced with the quiet words ‘more Fauré’. The first was Fauré’s fourth Nocturne, the second the sicilienne from his incidental music for Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande; two lovely miniatures played beautifully. I could not hear the pianist’s words with regard to the last of his encores; nor did I recognise it. But that was as near as I came to disappointment during this concert – a concert in which made me that Louis Lortie does more than play Fauré’s music – he inhabits it.

Glyn Pursglove

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