Louis Lortie in Rome …The Complete Chopin Studies
Not many pianists can approach all the Chopin studies in one sitting and so it was with some trepidation that I entered that hallowed S.Cecilia Hall and saw just a piano on its own.
Admittedly a Steinway D of Fabbrini so I knew we were in good hands.
Having heard Louis Lortie recently too in Saint- Saens fourth piano concerto in Turin and last year in two truly monumental performances of Brahms F minor Sonata in London and Rome
I was sure we were in for a memorable occasion.
I well remember my wonder on discovering as a boy the recording of Alfred Cortot.
All the studies plus the Preludes op 28.
It had passed into history his public performances of this programme.
Each little tone poem full of glittering jewels and subtle poetry.
Vladimir Ashkenazy in my youth gave memorably poetic performances of the studies op 10 and 25 together with the Beethoven Sonatas op 31 in two recitals at the Festival Hall and was his visiting card in London together with Rachmaninoff Concerto n.3 and Prokofiev n.2.
We tend to forget what a poet he was at the keyboard now he is more often seen with a baton in his golden hands.
Stefan Askenase too gave a memorable performance of the complete studies as did Fou Ts’ong in London and for us on my request in Rome.
I will never forget Jan Smeterlin in op.10 n.2.One of the most transcendentally difficult studies in chromatic notes played with a beguiling charm and some unexpected but beautiful pointing of inner parts as befitted a disciple of Leopold Godowsky.
Godowsky ,the pianists pianist ,made notorious arrangements of all the studies sometimes combining two together,but always maintaining and sometimes augmenting their poetic content.
Artur Rubinstein stuck to those few where he felt he had something to say.”You have to love what you play” he is famously quoted as saying and op 25 n.5 in E minor was truly memorable as was the excitement he generated at the end of op.10 n.4 in C sharp minor. We were all astonished when in his final recital at the Wigmore Hall he played so beautifully op 25 n.2 that we had never heard him play before.
He could not see out of the corners of his eyes and so abandoned his 2nd Scherzo a lifetime warhorse that alas he could not longer tame .
The study lies beautifully in the middle register of the piano and there was certainly nothing wrong with his magical fingers even in his 90’s
Richter ,of course,arrived late in life with his Yamaha piano and little light on the score and proceeded to astonish us with his choice of some of the most difficult studies.
Strange that Piero Rattalino in his learned programme notes “Chopin entre deux ages” had forgotten to mention what is generally recognised as the finest modern account of the studies on record.
That of Murray Perahia.
I doubt he would play them complete in concert but has preferred to play a few at a time nurturing them with all his masterly musicianship,control and delicacy.
Shura Cherkassky’s 1955 account so lauded by Rattalino but strangely disowned by Shura when he heard it had reappeared on the paper stall in Italy.
Like Arrau whose masterly account of op 25 he was not at all happy with.
These are indeed the pinnacle of the pianistic repertoire and each of these master pianists have had different peaks in view.
Today listening to Louis Lortie playing with astonishing precision and startling speed, whilst I could understand his wish to present the studies as an architectural whole I felt it was at the expense of the poetic content of each individual study.
Some of the studies in particular from op 10 whilst marvelling at the performance no real characterisation or sense of colour was possible.
Even the beautiful study in E major op 10 n.3 played with an admirable cantabile was somehow never allowed to flow simply and the accompaniment sounded strangely agitated.
Nothing to do with the tempo which has always been in discussion since Chopin changed Vivace ma non troppo to Lento ma non troppo.
This is to do with simplicity and getting away from the Chopin tradition which is the opposite of Chopin’s distinct wish for the roots to be always firmly planted whilst allowing the branches to sway naturally.This was surprisingly also in evidence in the Nocturne offered as an encore
The dramatic contrasts in the “Revolutionary”study were strangely missing too.
However there were many memorable things such as the sweep and passionate shaping of the final study op.25 n.12.
The beautiful simplicity of the sublime central section of op.25 n.5 in E minor.
The lack of sentimentality and sense of forward drive of the beautiful op 10 n.6.
Surely the melody is in the left hand in the double third study op 25 n.6 in G sharp minor.Not evident here although the treacherous double thirds were thrown off with admirable ease.
I well remember Perlemuters memorable performance of this one in particular when he played the op.25 set at his debut in Italy at the age of 81!
Agosti was unforgettable in his studio in Siena pointing out with such passion the left hand melody in the scintillating op.10 n.8 in F major .
It was just this that was missing in spite of an astonishingly accurate jeux perle in the right hand .
Some beautiful sounds in the Trois Nouvelles Etudes although the middle one -legato/staccato – was a rather too rumbustious bed fellow for these three most poetic studies written for the Methode des Methodes of Fetis and Moscheles.
After such a tour de force Louis Lortie still had the strength to offer an encore. Chopin’s most magical nocturne in D flat played with a haunting sense of colour that held the audience at last mesmerised by the true poet that is Louis Lortie.
Maybe it is time to leave these complete performances of studies, whether Liszt ,Chopin .Rachmaninov, as a visiting card for the latest “whizz kids” who have the energy and time to prove their laurels.
If they are photogenic the record industry will have a field day in marketing them!
Artists of the stature of Louis Lortie need no better proof of their mastery than the magisterial performances of the great master works such as Brahms F minor Sonata which are but of a chosen few.