For the classical music connoisseur with a historical conscience, there are any number of reasons to feel guilty for enjoying a sensually gripping concert experience. He frets that the heartfelt sustained quality so integral to many performances of Bach’s Chaconne betrays an ignorance of gut strings and period bows. He suppresses the the outward appearance of having been moved by the blatantly ahistorical yet inspired pedaling in a Mozart cadenza which takes full advantage of the acoustic properties of a Steinway Model D. He tuts knowingly at intermission of a tour-de-force performance of Chopin’s complete Nocturnes, knowing full well that modern scholarship dictates they should be enjoyed separately, as Chopin performed them himself.

Louis Lortie © Plushmusic
Louis Lortie
© Plushmusic

What cathartic release then – what sensual delight – to revel in three hours of a complete performance of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, the house lights of Montreal’s Maison Symphonique fully dimmed, a charismatic virtuoso on stage in the person of the indomitable Louis Lortie making full use of the entire spectrum of colours, effects and delights of the gleaming stretched-limo-Steinway laid out in front of him. Last Sunday afternoon two thousand awed and delighted spectators eschewed Super Bowl parties (and Renée Fleming) for an athletic performance of another order altogether, organized by ProMusica. And the experience must have pleased the high-minded purists as much as those blind to the historical imperative, for the modern concert hall recital with all its attendant hysteria is nothing if not fully appropriate for a Liszt-athon.

Les années de pèlerinage consists of three books and a combined total of 23 “short” pieces composed anytime between 1835 and 1883, including the often heard favourites of “Vallée d’Obermann”, “Sonetto 104 del Petrarca”, the “Dante Sonata” and “Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este”. Published at different points in the composer’s career, the three books taken together can only be said to constitute a discrete musical utterance in the broadest of interpretations (which is nonetheless a compelling one). That the lifelong philosophical journey toward enlightenment of one of the 19th century’s most notable musical figures is contained in these pages can partly be inferred by the title, an invitation to years of apprenticeship, the apogee of which may very well consist in a complete performance. In this way Lortie delivered impressively on the composer’s intentions and in doing so proved himself a worthy disciple.

Forget the crashing bombast and ear-splitting octave passages so often associated with a Liszt performance (though bombast and octaves were in no short order); Lortie’s range of virtuosity and sound was enormous but his performance never crossed into bad taste. Not once in three hours of play did he produce an ugly sound, and yet the forceful passages, from the commanding and noble “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell” to the impossible octaves of the “Dante Sonata”, shook the very ground, finding sympathetic vibrations in every corner of the hall. More than a few times the fleet evanescence of his soft and upper registers was truly transporting. Some of the pieces, particularly in the third book, took on the character of an ecstatic soliloquy, while in others no one voice could be discerned alone in the irresistibly Romantic wash of harmonies produced by the whole.

Louis Lortie’s manner was humble, his movements measured except in moments of passionate release when a wayward arm might fly off the keyboard in a seemingly uncontrolled impulse. The careful pedaling and intelligent voice-leading betrayed a performer who had devoted a great deal of thought and planning to the effect of gradual augmentation so often apparent in Liszt’s piano works. As a virtuoso Lortie is uniquely human, and yet the sounds that emanate from his instrument belong to the sphere of the divine. The appreciative audience hollered their approval throughout four ovations in what seemed an entirely historically satisfying way to end the afternoon performance.

*****