Louis Lortie joins several others in the past
few years to put down a complete Chopin cycle. It remains to be
seen just how complete this is. Over on Zephyr, Ian Hobson is
making the completist claim and issuing some remarkable music-making
in the process. Lortie has already recorded the Etudes and Preludes
for Chandos (CHAN8482 and 9597); one has to assume that there
will be re-recordings to give integrity to the intégrale.
Lortie was a prize-winner in the Leeds International Competition in 1984, and in the same year won First Prize in the Busoni Competition. Lortie plays a Fazioli to great effect. It appears to be a first-class instrument, and is exquisitely prepared. His own introductory notes refer to the lost art of improvisation, wherein a performer would improvise before the main piece of substance. As an approximation to this, Lortie prefaces each Scherzo with a Nocturne, an interesting idea that, thanks to the intelligence of his programming, works a treat.
The Nocturne Op. 72/1 is, despite its late opus number, Chopin’s first essay in the genre and reveals the origins in the works of Field. Written probably in Warsaw in 1827, it is nevertheless Chopin through and through. Lortie builds the textures gently. The piano is caught well by the engineers, with just the right amount of presence. The First Scherzo follows, its finger-twisting demands as nothing under Lortie’s sterling technique. Lortie brings a sense of play true to the origins of the title into his reading as well as a sure sense of direction. Coupled with the excellent recording, this is a winning combination. He is lighter than Pollini (DG) yet he conveys the darkness of Chopin just as well. The central lullaby is magnificently intimate.
The Nocturne Op. 55/2 is a masterpiece of Chopinesque counterpoint. Out of its final waves emerges the famous B flat minor Scherzo. Lortie’s finger strength and fluidity once more impresses. Moments of passion withheld (around the 5:50 mark) make the link to the Nocturnes clear. Intimacy is the watchword of the E major Nocturne, Op. 62/2, an intimacy that, intriguingly, leaks into the C sharp minor Scherzo, where there is less “fuoco” than Chopin perhaps envisaged; that word is, after all, in the initial directive by Chopin: “Presto con fuoco”. The famous cascading figures seem a touch lacking in magic here.
The companion Nocturne from Op. 62, No. 1 in B, is a complex piece, more dramatic than most Nocturnes. Lortie tracks its journey impeccably through to the positively radiant, trill-encrusted statement of the theme. If Lortie cannot quite convey the majesty of the E major Scherzo in the way Richter (EMI) does, his is nevertheless a creditable account.
So far, this is a most impressive disc. If the Nocturnes do not eclipse Pollini (DG) and the Scherzos do not knock the greats off their perches, the Sonata comes close. The opening chords are as portentous as any; the unrest of the Doppio movimento
put me in mind of Argerich’s classic DG account (currently residing on 463 663-2). Lortie repeats back to the Grave
, as many pianists these days do. He does not sound absolutely convinced however; Uchida in live performance has provided an electric shock at this point. There is a sense of struggle to the Scherzo that is not inappropriate, just as a sense of inevitability pervades the portentous parts of the Funeral March. The finale, though, sounds somewhat etude-like – hard to imagine wind around grave-stones here, it is more like a draft for an extra study to Op. 25 that never came to fruition.
All credit to the producer and engineer, Ralph Couzens, for the
sound quality. This is a stimulating issue, the true excellence
of which lies in the Nocturnes and the Scherzos.