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The Multi-Talented Louis Lortie

Louis Lortie, piano , harpsichord and conductor

Works by Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, Chan Centre, March 19, 2011 

   Ever since his debut with the Montreal and Toronto symphony orchestras in the early 1980’s, and his initial recordings for the CBC, Louis Lortie was regarded as Canada’s young pianist to watch.  Now, after 25 years, he has left us a wonderful legacy of internationally-acclaimed recordings.  These performances (principally on the Chandos label) combine supreme technical fluency and elegance with impeccable musicianship in covering much of the core of the piano repertoire: Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Ravel.


    This VSO concert was particularly intriguing since it featured Lortie in new roles as harpsichordist and conductor, as well as pianist.  In fact, it was the first concert that I had ever seen where a harpsichord was initially placed on stage (to perform Bach’s F-minor keyboard concerto) and then removed before intermission, to be replaced by a Fazioli grand-piano (to play Mozart’s famous 21stconcerto).  The harpsichord itself was also of interest, being built locally in West Vancouver by Craig Tomlinson.

     While everyone wants to play Bach on the piano these days, we must remember that one of the first ‘original instrument’ breakthroughs was to use a harpsichord for his keyboard works.  It was enjoyable to hear this concerto this way again.  The instrument was excellent: clear, refined with the right type of mellow resonance, and Lortie showed evident command over the textures the instrument offered.  Not every pianist can play the harpsichord, and vice versa!  The performance was conscientious and scholarly, with especially sensitive phrasing in the slow movement.  Perhaps it is just the acoustics of the Chan Centre, but a small complaint is that the harpsichord seemed a little under-projected when the full orchestra was playing.

     The Mozart was also intriguing, with the piano set square to the orchestra in Baroque ‘continuo’ style, and Lortie standing for the conducting and then sitting down (sometimes abruptly) to play his piano part.  His conducting was patient and unforced, concentrating on transparent articulation, with special attention given to the wind phrasing.  The seeming smoothness of the orchestra produced interesting results, since Lortie would often make his piano entries much sharper and pointed, giving the work more contrast than usual.  The sheer intelligence and fluency of the piano playing was pretty remarkable, invariably bringing the notes to life.  With the famous (‘Elvira Madigan’) slow movement given its characteristic repose, the sophisticated contrasts in the outer movements allowed a performance of unusual freshness overall.

    I thought the conducting in the larger Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony was also successful: clean, balanced, with a strong feeling for detail.  Perhaps Lortie was slightly too methodical and sectional in his attempt to fuse Mendelssohn’s driving counterpoint with his more solemn religious musical themes, but this has always been a difficult work to build cohesively anyway.  Certainly, tempos were sensibly chosen, the beautifully-quiet ‘Dresden Amen’ (that Wagner admired and took to Parsifal) was given its full due, and the final movement had a fine structural strength.  An admirable start for an artist new to this trade; I see nothing but up-side here.  It was also good to hear a concert performance of a work that is now often neglected.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011