Contrasts dominated in André Laplante’s recital for the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, some coming off to great effect, and others less so. There were some issues with programme balance in this first concert of the “Great Canadian Pianists” series at St. George’s Church in Montreal: The soft-spoken first half was entirely composed of works by Ravel (or almost, because Liszt’s Sonnetto del Petrarca was inserted before the intermission) while the second half featured three more large works by Liszt. End-heavy, to put it mildly, but at least the evening finished with a bang.

The most impressive part of the performance was Liszt’s Ballade no. 2 in B minor - a less frequently heard work than Funérailles, and the two selections from Années de pèlerinage that rounded off the Liszt portion of the concert. One can guess why: the Ballade contains every wonderful and detestable quality of a Liszt virtuoso character piece. By turns introspective, wickedly difficult and bombastic to excess, this work is not for the faint of heart, whether you are sitting in the audience or on the piano bench. Laplante attacked it without fear, launching himself whole-heartedly into the enormous chords, thundering octaves and a gale-force section of runaway scale passages. His admirable conviction is reminiscent of that another virtuoso pianist who didn’t seem to care if his abandon caused a few sour notes, Vladimir Horowitz. Indeed, not everything Laplante played on the Liszt section of the program, sounded “nice”, or respected the limits of what some pianists call “good sound”. However his ability to take what seems like the absolute limit in terms of magnitude of sound and push it even further makes for an exciting live experience. In his more controlled moments Laplante is very much in control, exhibiting a clear touch when he needs it and a particular ability to create that wash of sound so often called for in Liszt, in which individual notes melt away into the greater ebb and flow of the figuration. On the topic of sour notes, and to be fair, the piano on loan for the occasion seemed unusually voiced toward the top and rather brittle sounding for the space.

Funérailles began with a sobering dirge, the accompanying chords entering almost too soon and creating an uneasy effect. In this instance, Laplante’s tendency to push the pacing didn’t pay off, and the otherwise agonising crescendo that begins the piece was achieved too easily and without the sense of struggle it demands. The “revolutionary” section, with chords in the right hand and a repeated triplet pattern in the bass, lacked definition and lost some of its bracing quality. But Laplante made up for all that in the warm, seductive tenor melody and the dramatic return of the main theme.

The first half in comparison, though it was made up of a colourful selection of works by Ravel, seemed restrained and never quite got off the ground. A somewhat uncomfortable pattern of clapping/not clapping was occasioned by the brevity of the first piece - the beautiful and nonchalantly played Prelude, composed in 1913 as an examination piece for the Paris Conservatory sight reading exam. After one and a half minutes it didn’t seem right to clap - nor after the Menuet Antique which followed. After a complete performance of Valses nobles et sentimentales applause seemed apropos, but Laplante did not acknowledge it, causing some discomfort. “Vallée des cloches” from Miroirs was accompanied by actual bells from the Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral up the street - a coincidence which some of us enjoyed. Laplante’s playing in the first half was even, well thought-out and clear; just not that exciting. It wanted something of the crystaline brilliance and nimbleness that characterises the most lively of Ravel performances.