For almost his entire career, Canadian pianist Louis Lortie has been a devotee of Franz Liszt and a true apostle for his music, in particular the set of three suites known as Années de pèlerinage. He has successfully recorded the full set and has criss-crossed the globe playing this cycle and constantly trying to approach it from new angles and attempting to illuminate additional details. This past Sunday he brought Les Années to Chicago, his recital inaugurating this season’s “Symphony Center Presents” piano series.

Louis Lortie © Elias
Louis Lortie
© Elias

The not so many spectators that reached the hall after navigating their way around a multitude of exhausted Chicago marathoners, trying to regain their strength, were treated with just the first two of the three suites. Lortie claimed in an interview that the choice had nothing to do with the third cycle’s impossible technical challenges but was related to the organizers believing that a three hours recital would be way too long. Unfortunately, the third book is, from today’s perspective, the most interesting, experimental and forward looking. It is there, in the later miniatures, where one can easier find musical statements foretelling the art of both Wagner and Debussy, making Liszt’s piano music a pivotal point in the history of western art.

At the same time, the rare chance to listen to the complete first two suites, especially in such an exquisite and knowledgeable interpretation, should be no reason to complain. For Lortie, Années de pèlerinage is not just a collection of reminiscences, a “musical portrayal of few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions”, as the composer himself characterized them. Calling to mind Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, the cycle is an epitome for a typically Romantic journey of (self) discovery, and that’s exactly how the pianist approached the score. Nowhere is the quest for psychical rejuvenation, in close proximity with natural beauty, made clearer than in the “Vallée d’Obermann”, the most frequently excerpted segment from Première année: Suisse. A piece that, taken out of its context, can sound bombastic and insidious, was here organically integrated with the rest, musical phrases shaped with uttermost simplicity. Lortie “painted” the mini-triptych within the first book – “Au lac de Wallenstadt”, “Pastorale”, “Au bord d’une source” – in clear, luminous colors and broad strokes, without any excessive rubato. The contrasting “Orage”, depicting nature’s unleashed fury, was played with breathtaking but controlled speed.

If the first suite is more about Liszt’s communion with the natural beauty of the Alps, the pieces in Deuxième année: Italie are mostly musical commentaries about famous art works. Inspired by Raphael’s Il sposalizio (The Marriage of the Virgin), the first piece had, in Lortie’s hands, a delicate ingenuity that can be associated more with Perugino, Raphael’s teacher and the original “designer” of this type of mise-en-scène. The next miniature, “Il penseroso”, only two pages long, a brief and severe musical image of a Michelangelo sculpture in the Medici Chapel, lacked any futile ornamentations. The three “Sonnetti del Petrarca” were played with deep lyricism, the inner voices rendered with simplicity and directness, an excellent proof that, in the right hands, Liszt’s piano music is far from being just flashy and superficial. The culmination of Book 2, the massive “Après une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata”, full of impossible series of octaves, that seemed a bit less clean than similar ones played earlier in “Orage”, sounded a tad too brutal, as if the enormous technical challenges didn’t leave enough room for the entire expressive potential.

As an encore, Lortie played “Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” the best-known segment from the “troisième année”, caressing every sound with great delicacy, making the musical cascades and splashes seem transparent. The regret that we couldn’t listen to all seven pieces belonging to this third set still lingered.