Non-musicians could easily underestimate the hours of preparation it takes to practise and memorise the programme of a concert. But anyone who would try to learn by heart 57 different words in a given order might find that quite difficult. Now, if we substitute these simple words with 57 whole movements of music, the immense challenge (intellectual, musical, and technical) of Monday night’s recital will become obvious. For that’s exactly what the French-Canadian pianist, Louis Lortie, undertook by composing his programme exclusively of preludes; three sets of them by three composers of three different nationalities: a total of 57 movements.

Louis Lortie © Elias
Louis Lortie
© Elias

During the Baroque era, a prelude mostly specified an introduction to one or more succeeding movements, but in 19th century music parlance it gained a new meaning. Preludes became independent, often quirky compositions, showcasing brilliantly rapid passages as much as evocative soliloquies; improvisatory in style, short in duration – an opportunity for a wide range of dazzling musical ideas to blossom.

It was probably Frédéric Chopin who set the pace with his much loved 24 Preludes Op.28, a cycle following the so-called “circle of fifths” through each major and minor key. It was famously recorded first in its entirety by Alfred Cortot. One of his students was Yvonne Hubert, who later became the teacher of Lortie. The musical inheritance is undeniable and perhaps contributed to the passion and empathy in Lortie’s playing. He guided his audience through the almost 40 minute-long cycle with commendable composure. In his concept, individual movements frequently became preludes to the next prelude, as if reaching back to the title’s original meaning. His performance drew attention to strong connecting links more than once by minimising breathing space in between movements, for example when the last note of one prelude was the same as the first note of the next one – even if the function of that note was quite different in the new tonality (e.g. between no. 17 and 18). His performance never lost its admirable control; at the same time though, it rarely aspired to conquer new heights, with the exception of the longest and most substantial movement, no. 15. Here, the twice recurring, relentless ostinato created a breathless increase in tension, attesting to the vertiginous depths that Chopin’s music can lead its performer and listener to. Cortot, never shy of a dramatic expression, called this movement “But Death is here, in the shadows”.

While performing such a well-known cycle as the Chopin Preludes comes with the inevitable risk of not being able to escape from the shadow of so many memorable recordings, Gabriel Fauré’s Preludes Op.103, the opening work in the programme, was free from any such comparison. At the time of its inception, the composer, by then in his sixties, suffered from the increasingly menacing symptoms of deafness, and perhaps from the bureaucratic burdens of being the director of the Paris Conservatoire as well. These nine movements sounded pleasant enough, with crisp etude-like ebullience in no. 2 and the constant challenge of the juxtaposition of duplets and triplets (two and three even notes within one beat) in no. 5. None of this proved to be difficult to the pianist and maybe that is the very reason why this work sounded less effective: I missed more impish surprises in the first case and wished for more ambiguity in the second.

It all changed splendidly upon hearing Alexander Scriabin’s 24 Preludes Op.11. Astonishingly, the young and relatively inexperienced composer penned his cycle (following Chopin’s lead in its structure, carefully designed key sequence, and even its style) across a span of some eight years, mostly during his travels while discovering the beauties of various European cities: Amsterdam, Heidelberg, Paris and so on.

This was by far the most enjoyable part of the recital. Dynamic contrasts, otherwise well-tamed for the rest of the concert, were given free to rein. The powerful Steinway roared under Lortie’s fingers as the pianist approached the climax in no. 6, but then continued immediately with serene delicacy at the beginning of the next number. The constant and technically demanding left hand octaves of no. 14 never once failed to drive the tension in the unsettling, distinctly unusual time signature of 15/8. The obeisance to model and master became evident in no. 16, where a barely hidden reference appears to Chopin’s Marche funèbre from his Second Sonata, in the identical key of B flat minor. It is probably not accidental that both sombre movements (Scriabin’s no. 16 and Chopin’s “But Death is here, in the shadows” no. 15) appear at the same place in the span of their respective cycles, called sometimes the divine proportion or golden mean, underlining the significance of these movements and the occasional propensity in both composer’s work to turn to grave and unsmiling thoughts.