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Friday, March 11, 2011

Concert Review: A Journey Into Mystery

Louis Lortie Plays Liszt
Louis Lortie and friend.
The three books of Franz Liszt's Anneés de la pèlerinage constitute a musical autobiography, chronicling the composer's busy life as a travelling virtuoso. Played together, the three volumes (or "years") comprise two hours and 45 minutes of difficult, virtuso pianism. Playing them all in the course one evening was an unheard-of feat, even in Liszt's day when programs could run for four hours.

On Thursday night, as part of Lincoln Center's TullyScope Festival, (designed to demonstrate the versatility of the newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall) French-Canadian virtuoso Louis Lortie did just that. Mr. Lortie has enjoyed a long steady climb into the elite echelon of virtuoso touring pianists, a profession created by Liszt himself.

Liszt's so-called "recitals" (he invented the term) were the rage during the composer's career as a touring virtuoso. His playing inspired women to throw undergarments, jewels, and even house keys as part of the peculiar syndrome that became known as "Liszt-o-mania." Everywhere he went, Liszt was the first rock star, a reputation that remained secure as he retired (at 35) to teach a whole new generation of pianists his secrets.

In this modern age, playing like Mr. Lortie's might inspire both genders to engage in such behavior. While no objects (intimate or otherwise) were flung on Thursday night, Mr. Lortie played at a very high level indeed. His performance, in two acts with a 30-minute break, was a fearsome show of prodigious memory and manual dexterity.

From the opening bars of the La chapelle de Guillaume Tell, the pianist took his audience on a detailed tour of Liszt's travels in Switzerland, the focus of the first Année. Mr. Lortie played with careful amounts of rubato, stretching and elongating the notes. He drove the piano, playing from his shoulders, crossing hands for the most difficult passages and ranging across his instrument as Liszt traversed the Alps, stopping at mountain lakes, weathering a fierce storm and celebrating the bells of Geneva at night.

The next stop was a visit to Liszt's last years, depicted in the third volume of the Années. Published in 1883 near the end of Liszt's life, these works are far more experimental in character and reflect the black depressions that afflicted the composer in his old age. By splitting the program in this way, Mr. Lortie was able to conclude the first half of his recital with the shimmering, rippling Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este, a composition in which Liszt practically invented musical impressionism, inspiring both Debussy and Ravel.

Mr. Lortie's visit to Italy in the Deuxième annéee seemed to fly by. He led off with a sweetly phrased, intimate account of Sposializio, inspired by a Raphael painting. The three Petrarch Sonnets, (re-workings of earlier songs) impressed. But the real gem was the crowd-pleasing Dante Sonata, played by Mr. Lortie with hell-fire in his fingers and delicate use of pedal. There was a definite whiff of sulphur coming from the Steinway.

The travels of Liszt did not exhaust the enthusiastic, piano-loving audience. They clapped hard for an encore, and Mr. Lortie obliged with a shimmering, rippling account of Die Forelle ("The Trout"), Liszt's piano-only version of the Schubert lied. The concert was followed by an engaging onstage dialogue between Mr. Lortie and Dr. Alan Walker, the Liszt scholar and author of the definitive three-volume biography of the composer-pianist.

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