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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Wagner, Liszt and the Romantic Tradition: Louis Lortie (Piano), Wigmore Hall, 10.04.2006 (JPr)

Wagner/Liszt, Tannhäuser Overture & ‘O Du Mein Holder Abendstern’

Liszt, Vallée D’obermann & Grosses Konzertsolo (Revised By Louie Lortie)

I entered the Wigmore Hall with the preconception that nobody can play Wagner’s transcriptions or paraphrases like the German pianist Stefan Mikisch, who has made a speciality of this music. Hr Mikisch is content with a career based mainly on lecture-recitals and gives the season-long, midday series of introductions to the operas at the Bayreuth Festival each year. This is in complete contrast to the Canadian pianist for this Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert, Louis Lortie, who has garnered critical acclaim for the ‘fresh perspective and individuality’ he brings to a deliberately broad spectrum of keyboard music.

Wagner’s music has incredibly intense emotional power and theatricality, whereas Liszt’s transcriptions are works of pianistic brilliance, bringing off Wagner's orchestral music on the piano with a combination of the former’s harmonic and melodic genius and the latter’s virtuosic keyboard ability. Other than a few youthful efforts and student pieces in the early 1830s, Wagner composed little for the piano. Liszt, in contrast, chose to arrange for piano works of promising composers he felt deserved a wider audience, Wagner among them. He began by transcribing the Tannhäuser Overture in 1848 and continued right up to his death in 1886, and this remained the principal way people heard Wagner’s music outside of the opera house.

Liszt had a restless intellect and he was also ceaselessly creative, seeking the new in music. The greatest pianist of his time and inventor of the modern piano recital, he composed some of the most difficult piano music ever written. In February 1849, he wrote to Wagner: ‘Talking of people with good sense, do you know what I mean to do? No more nor less than to appropriate for the piano, after my fashion, the overture of Tannhäuser and the whole scene "O du mein holder Abendstern" of the third act. As to the former, I believe that it will meet with few executants capable mastering its technical difficulties, but the scene of the "Abendstern" should be within easy reach of second-class pianists … I should like to have it published soon … and when we meet, I shall have the impertinence to play you with my two hands your overture, such as I have prepared it for my particular use.'

Clearly the Tannhäuser was too difficult for Louis Lortie and it occasionally reminded me of Tom (the cat) playing the piano at the Hollywood Bowl hammering away and chasing Jerry (the mouse) up and down the keyboard. Lortie’s playing seemed ill at ease, particularly during the difficult finger runs. He was more comfortable with the plaintive ‘O du mein holder Abendstern’. I cannot believe he was helped by playing his piano of choice, an Italian Fazioli. To my ears it was an unyieldingly steely sounding instrument, possibly unsuited to the Wigmore Hall, though on the transmission that I later heard it seemed to reveal more warmth of tone than was apparent in the hall.

Whilst my admiration for Mikisch and his performances of Wagner remain undiminished, Lortie was much more at ease with Liszt’s own compositions, despite the fact they cover much of the same emotional ground as the Wagner and retain many of the technical difficulties. The composition of the three volumes of the Années de pèlerinage took more than forty years but it contains some of Liszt’s most important and most popular music. The Première année: Suisse, was composed in 1836 and the Vallée d’Obermann, the longest of them, is the sixth of the Première année. Liszt pays homage to Sénancour, the French writer of Obermann, and to the values expressed in his novel with music that is densely written and full of magnificent pianistic effects. It is melancholic with echoes of Tchaikovsky’s future Eugene Onegin and rich in pathos, not to mention being highly audacious from a harmonic point of view. The ending (part Wagner, part foreshadowing Gershwin) introduces a sense of optimism, and even ecstasy, that is particularly effective and this was brought out in Lortie’s reading.

The recital concluded with Liszt’s Grosses Konzertsolo – as revised by Lortie himself to make it ‘more powerful and coherent structurally’. This is a finely dramatic piece that precedes his later Sonata in B minor. Originally intended as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire - but deemed too demanding - it retains the whiff of the bravura showpiece item about it and, at times, I imagined it as the piano accompaniment to a flickering silent Eisenstein film. Lortie blended the eloquent poetry of the Andante sostenuto middle section with the (at last) fully radiant Tannhäuser references, through the tremolandos and glittering textures to the glorious conclusion. It was a triumph for both the composer and the soloist.

© Jim Pritchard




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