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Monday, May 7, 2012

Concert Review: The Substitute Virtuoso

Louis Lortie in recital at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
The pianist Louis Lortie. Photo by Elias.
A few weeks ago, Carnegie Hall subscribers were informed that pianist Maurizio Pollini had cancelled his planned New York recitals for this season for "health reasons." This the second year in which the Italian virtuoso had declined to appear on this side of the Atlantic. On Sunday afternoon, those subscribers had the pleasure of hearing Louis Lortie, who offered a program of Beethoven and Chopin in the second of these scheduled concerts.

This Canadian pianist has built a reputation in recent years for clean, imaginative playing. He began the concert with two of the most popular Beethoven Sonatas, the Waldstein and Les Adieux. The first movement of the Waldstein was played with a pell-mell spirit that slowed with the application of rubato in the second theme. Mr. Lortie accelerated again, playing Beethoven's thematic building blocks with a sure touch. The glissando notes came as fast as it was possible to play them without slurring.

In his methodical way, Mr. Lortie brought equal weight to the Waldstein's short second movement, providing melodic expression and making this Adagio more than just a bridge between big ideas. The quick turn into the final Rondo happened almost invisibly, as Mr. Lortie siezed hold of the big, singing theme, playing the repettions of it with rhythmic drive and a warm sense of melody.

Those strengths also applied to Les Adieux, which Beethoven wrote to commemorate the departure and subsequent return of his patron Archduke Rudolph following Napoleon's attack on Vienna in 1809. Mr. Lortie expertly conveyed the changing moods of this emotion-driven sonata, an early example of programmatic writing for the keyboard. He was at his finest in the tricky passages of the last movement, switching subjects between his hands and ending the work with lively figures celebrating the protagonist's return.

For the second half of the concert, Mr. Lortie programmed six works by Chopin. In the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Mr. Lortie chose to alternate slow and fast works, pairing them off by matching their tonalities and sometimes letting one composition flow into its companion piece. (He chose the same format for his Chandos recordings of the Nocturnes and the Ballades.) All the works were in ascending keys: the first two in F, the second pair in F minor, and the last in F sharp.

Mr. Lortie brought soothing lyricism to the opening Nocturne in F, Chopin's first exercise in that particular genre. It led quickly into the militant energy of Ballade No. 2 in F. The later (and more bittersweet) Nocturne in F minor (which opens Op. 55, the composer's last set of these pieces) was paired with the fourth and final Ballade, a work that has its roots in a poem by a compatriot of Chopin's. The composer calls for difficult arioso-like writing combined with complex counterpoint. Mr. Lortie played with singing tone, making the Ballade sound like a complex transcription from an unwritten opera.

After a brief pause, Mr. Lortie returned for the last two pieces of the evening, the F sharp Nocturne and the Barcarolle. The Nocturne went back to the composer's early Op. 15, and featured dream-like pianism, with judicious damping and an elegant touch. The Barcarolle, one of Chopin's most impressive creations, featured Italianate rhythms that sprung to life, supporting Mr. Lortie's watery, spiraling runs down the keyboard.

The pianist returned for three encores, all of them Chopin. The D Flat Major Nocturne featured tricky keyboard variations over a dreamy progression of chords. It led to two fiery Etudes, piano studies which allowed Chipin room to push the limits of his instrument. The two chosen by Mr. Lortie, Tristesse and the Tempest allowed for contrasting moods and further displays of virtuoso technique from this brilliant artist.

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