Louis Lortie, Howard Assembly Room, 2nd March 2018

A flawless performance leaves a Leeds’ audience mesmerised and enchanted.

Louis Lortie is not one for indulgences: his programme consists of only two behemoth pieces: Schubert’s Sonate in G, D. 894 and Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, Livre II: Italie (Years of Pilgrimage, Book II: Italy). A slight programme, perhaps: where other pianists might give us four pieces or more, Lortie preferred an approach based on the philosophy that “less is more”—and he was certainly right. In these two huge masterpieces, there are so many memorable, unique and perfect moments, that one is still left wondering (in every rich sense of the word) what stood out as the highlight amongst so many riches.

Lortie is restrained in other ways, too. His style is muscular, and resists the temptation to soak the piano sound in quite so many Romantic colours as most great pianists of our day (and previous days’ pianists, too, of course!). Whilst some—myself included—might miss some of those ornaments, the soundworld which Lortie builds with the Howard Assembly Steinway is just as rich, but in a totally different, and quite original way. That said, his drier sound, and his resistance to milking, say, a simple descending fourth (in the Liszt) for all its emotional weight, did remind me of Maurizio Pollini’s style, although I have never had the good fortune to hear that player in person, so this can only be a rough comparison.

Such restraint, at any rate, is refreshing, albeit that, in the final evaluation, I might be more inclined to pick a warmer pianist as my go-to for any particular favourite piece.

Lortie glided into the Schubert, maintaining throughout every nook, corridor, and cranny of this vast sonata—the last published in Schubert’s lifetime—a great sense of clarity and an overarching feeling of sense. To make Schubert’s repetitions successful, one needs nuanced variation in expression, without losing the thread—the sense, or grammar, the internal logic—of Schubert’s compositional genius, which is more or less at its apex in these later piano sonatas. The highlight of the thing was the second movement. Schubert fans will know that the man writes a very fine Andante, the way Haydn writes a very fine Minuet, or Bach a Fugue: some people are simply the masters of a genre. In this movement, Lortie opened up all the space allowed for by the sonata’s lyrical contemplation. In the last two movements, as well as moments in the first, there was a sense of ponderousness, say, when a repeat did not seem to add anything particularly new. And perhaps this was what caused someone to whisper very loudly during one part of the sonata. Howard Assembly Room, with its mostly wood surfaces, has an exquisite acoustic—almost excruciatingly so—and its audience need to be made entirely aware—perhaps with the helpful reminders of the staff—that even the slightest noise is highly audible in such a setting.

The Schubert over, my heart sank, since Schubert, in my heart, is to Liszt what The Beatles are to Ed Sheeran in the hearts of others. Or so I thought.  If nothing else, I learned last night that I can be a prejudiced fool: for the Années de Pèlerinage represent Liszt at more or less his absolute best. The Italy book brings out all his poetic temperament and lyrical soul and, whilst there are virtuosic passages aplenty—things which, were we mediocre pianists to encounter them on the page, might make us wince just to look at them and think of how we might go about playing them—these are never ends in themselves, but means to the poetic expression. Never do they occlude that object. Even the movements are more poetically conceived than musically—that is to say, this is very literary music. Take a look at the movement titles:

  1. Sposalizio (in E major) — a depiction of Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin
  2. Il Penseroso (in C# minor) — a depiction of Michelangelo’s The Thinker

III. Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa (in A major)

  1. Sonetto 47 del Petrarca (in Db major)
  2. Sonetto 104 del Petrarca (in E major)
  3. Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (in Ab major)

VII. Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata (in D minor)

And even the surtitle Années de Pèlerinage is an allusion to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre. So, although ostensibly the suite (as well as the other two which Lortie did not play) concerns travel as its subject, in fact most of the travelling seems to be that sort of travel of the soul through books, poetry, and the visual arts.

One wonders whether Liszt appropriately channelled the spirit of Dante in the final movement, or if his Il Penseroso does not look a little small, and unthoughtful, next to the artwork to which it is supposed to pay homage. But these considerations really disappear in the artistry of Lortie’s playing, where one genius of the piano shows every facility in bringing out each nuance in the writing of another. By the end, much of the audience seemed utterly spellbound. My plus-one and I certainly were, and we had even to be shooed out by a member of staff, since we sat in our seats for 45 seconds after Lortie left the stage—not impressive hospitality, and the Assembly Room might revise their policy in this aspect and perhaps allow for 90 seconds.

In the way of other criticisms, there is not much that can be said. Lortie had a strange habit of rolling his fingers on the keys after they had been depressed, as if he wished he were playing a clavichord (in a way, so do I). Now, of course, Lortie knows more about the piano than I do, but this added nuance might be judged—as Mrs Eager often says—as “subtle to the point of nonexistence” in terms of its effect on the sound.

Slightly irksome was Lortie’s coming back to the stage twice in order graciously to receive the applause from an audience who obviously and desperately wanted an encore: but no encore was given. Again, Lortie is a restrained performer, and one reluctantly accepts that he would rather have two pieces perfectly done, than the same, with an encore added, in a state of exhaustion (both for audience and performer). Then again, many pianists have that stamina, and not to give an encore does come off—whatever your reasons—as ungenerous, particularly when a small, loyal audience has parted with perhaps in some cases serious money to hear your music-making for hardly two hours. Well, it is hard to complain seriously in the face of so much that was great. I would certainly allow Lortie to waste an hour or two of my time again, should he ever return to Leeds—I certainly hope he will.

Photograph supplied by Opera North.

Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

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