Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Louis Lortie Review

Louis Lortie
Chicago Symphony Center
January 20, 2013. 3:00pm

•Isolde's Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde

•Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre

•Réminiscences de Don Juan from Don Giovanni


Wagner-Josef Rubinstein
•Siegfried Idyll

•Overture to Tannhäuser

Louis Lortie played a concert program that was almost exclusively transcriptions of works by Wagner. I went to the concert because I had never heard of Mr. Lortie, and I was curious about his playing, and I was also very intrigued by the choice of program. I don't listen to much Wagner, although I liked what of his I've heard. I figured that with Liszt transcriptions and mostly Wagner, the concert couldn't go wrong.
Fortunately, the concert was very much worth what I paid for the ticket ($15), but there's no way I'd go to hear that program again. Here's why:

The program was an interesting experiment, but I don't think the pieces which were collected were the best choices for this particular idea. I got the strong impression that Mr. Lortie wanted to do a Wagner-transcribed program, but he couldn't make it work somehow. I don't know the complete works of Wagner, so maybe this program was the best among the choices, but the famous Mozart-Liszt paraphrase was a one-off (the sole non-Wagner work) and felt too grand for the end of the first section. I say this because I looked at the program while he played and thought, "he's been playing for 40 minutes, and he's ending with this? There's no way he's playing a finishing piece that can top what he just did without the impression like he's trying too hard.” Perhaps I'm searching for too deep a meaning about work selection in concert programming, but I am at a loss as to why that piece was on the program at all and why it was in that particular location.
Mr. Lortie's skill at handling the piano was fine: he had very nice chromatic thirds, but I feel that he didn't project very much in the softer parts. He's not a pianist wanting in power, so I was conused. Wagner wants a muted sound sometimes, but I didn't get the impression in this performance that it was always intentional.

In that vein, many of the brilliant passages from the transcriptions came off as clear, but not dazzling. They were bright but not shiny, if that makes any sense. Oh, and his playing was accompanied with plenty of hand tosses where his left arm fully extended into the air in the widest arc one could make while seated, and his eyebrows got a little out of control in the Tannheuser.

Another possible explanation why the concert failed to make a strong impression (besides his choice if pieces) lies in the idea itself of doing an all Wagner-transcribed program. Wagner's music is highly orchestral, and very heavily rooted in the different timbres of the orchestra. Wagner, a true visionary in this regard, thought of the sound for the instruments, checked his ideas on the piano and then wrote it for the instruments. He did not, however, write his musical thoughts out on piano first and then orchestrate it like many other composers of the time. On piano, where we're painting in black and white, so to speak, one can suggest at colors, but it's very difficult to play music like this convincingly.

This brings up another point which contributed to the overall impression of the concert. Wagner heavily relies upon the use of temporal space in time to achieve his effects. I think a significant part of the Wagner experience is having the surround the listener and carrying him to distant lands over great temporal expanses. Wagner gives you the impression that you're immersed in a part of an epic dram. He called his operas “music dramas”, and they take place on the broad time scale (almost in real time), and he calls upon all the instruments he writes for to yearn and to draw out long, sinuous lines and statements in tireless rhapsody. Wagner never did "brief". This is the problem.

The best piano in the world can't sustain tones the way Wagner demands, and throughout about 90% of the program, Mr. Lortie's attempts at elucidating the concept of spaciousness or breadth in his music came off making the piano sound insufficient. Fundamentally, the piano is taxed pasts its limits in this kind of music, and in Lortie's hands the effect was of the music falling flat. Sadly, this was nowhere more true than in the first five minutes of the first piece. For me, it was the first and biggest letdown of the entire concert. He took a chance and it fell flat.

In the Wagner-Wolf, in extended left hand melodic moments, what his playing lacked in nuance he made up in gesticulation, forced smiles and effete shimmy shakes. I don't mind a bit of movement in performances, but I did not like his non-playing movements in that piece or either of the closing works in the program's two halves. In addition to giving the impression that he ejaculated a little at the close of the Wagner-Wolf, he frequently used the hold-the-keys-down-in-the-chord-and-bob-your-wrists-up-and-down-move. We keyboard players refer to this move as "bebung". It's when you hold key(s) down and wiggle them to cause the hammer to rub against the string giving an additional vibrato. It exists only on clavichord (where it is a fine effect), but it can not be done on any well regulated piano. It simply is not possible, and as such, is patent affectation. When I see moves like this done, I have two thoughts: It's insulting to watch for people who do know what it is you're doing, and it's confusing and absurd for the people who don't.