Philadelphia Chamber Music Society planned to open its first-ever complete Beethoven sonata cycle with a performance by the legendary Rudolf Buchbinder. When the Viennese pianist cancelled his appearance last week, the company was left to field a suitable replacement on short notice. After a seven-day delay, the accomplished Louis Lortie jumped in, playing the original printed program in its entirety and kicking off what is sure to be a satisfying exploration of some of the master’s most beautiful music.

Louis Lortie
© Elias Photography

Lortie requested a Bösendorfer for the evening rather than the usual Steinway heard at the Perelman Theater. His choice of instrument spoke to his musical approach. This was Beethoven from a traditionalist point of view, with a rich, rounded timbre and a solid sense of shape and line. Lortie offered textbook excellence in the evening’s two most familiar pieces — Piano Sonata no. 8 in C minor, “Pathétique” and Piano Sonata no. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata” — but his formalist attitude was not devoid of intellect or excitement. The Appassionata unfurled at a steady pace that progressively built in dramatic tension. The Pathétique balanced brooding emotion with nimble virtuosity.

Yet the evening’s revelations came from the two other works on the bill. The recital opened with a performance of Piano Sonata no. 3 in C major that was notable for its symphonic sweep. Lortie’s interpretation drew parallels to the great orchestral writing Beethoven would begin producing in the years immediately following this sonata’s premiere in 1796, and left no doubt as to why it was dedicated to Haydn. He particularly luxuriated in the Adagio movement’s appoggiaturas.

The Piano Sonata no. 6 in F major, performed after intermission, may not top anyone’s list of best works among the 32, but Lortie performed it with a sense of depth and style that allowed the listener to envision everything the composer set out to say with the relatively brief work. The Allegro movement sounded appropriately stormy, but with a certain airiness in the piano’s upper register that anticipated the chimeric loveliness of the Allegretto. The concluding Presto was buoyant without being breakneck.

In an essay published on Bachtrack last month, Buchbinder wrote that he keeps a bust of Beethoven on his piano at home. I don’t know whether Lortie owns a similar statue, but the spirit of the composer was unquestionably present during his Philadelphia performance. This sonata cycle — which will feature the likes of Jonathan Biss, Richard Goode, Llŷr Williams and Mitsuko Uchida — is off to a splendid start.