Louis Lortie is an accomplished artist and his Chopin here makes for an enjoyable hour. I must give him credit for designing an excellent recital, well-planned and skillfully varied. Lortie writes in the notes that “nobody really wants to sit down and listen to pieces of a single genre in a row.” Thank goodness somebody understands! Certainly Chopin did not intend for us to hear, say, ten of the nocturnes or all four scherzi in a sitting.
Unfortunately I’m not totally sold on Lortie’s way with the music. It’s not poor; it’s just not very interesting, either. Yevgeny Sudbin’s
recital just a few months ago offered Chopin at its finest, and it was a fresh, new reading, very much its own. Likewise a connoisseur could listen blind to mazurkas as played by Ivan Moravec, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Garrick Ohlsson
, and Andrzej Wasowski, and have a pretty good idea which pianist is which. This doesn’t have that quality. Listening to Lortie doesn’t make me think of adjectives. I guess it can be emotionally cool, and the nocturnes can be tender, but maybe the word is pedestrian.
In some of the most harrowing, dramatic moments of the Ballades, Lortie sounds like he’s holding back, keeping his top shirt button done. Garrick Ohlsson’s six-minute Berceuse has me spoiled for its soft moonlit poetry and mesmeric feeling of improvisation; Lortie, at 4:42, takes a tempo more reminiscent of Rubinstein or Cortot. The extraordinary nocturne in C minor, Op 48 No 1, gets a central outburst of truly fearsome power, but the return to the main theme dulls the drama. Sudbin plays the same passage with an intensity that is in a higher class. The fourth ballade’s ending is not as inevitable or cataclysmic as it feels under the hands of Moravec, Rubinstein
, or most devastatingly Richter (YouTube
). On the other hand, Lortie does bring several of the nocturnes welcome lightness and elegance. Though the third ballade is a bit bloated the second ballade and the barcarolle are very well done.
The booklet notes are excellent. This is Chandos’s piano year, apparently: they’re recording the complete Chopin with Lortie, the complete Brahms with Barry Douglas, and the complete Haydn and
Beethoven sonatas with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The warm, concert-hall-like engineering on hand here is evidence of their mastery of piano recording. Not many pianists have come close to recording all of Chopin’s piano works; among those who managed or nearly did are Ohlsson, Ashkenazy, Idil Biret, and Rubinstein. I’m not optimistic about Louis Lortie deserving a place in that company, but there are many more volumes left to prove me wrong.