When Louis Lortie sat down at the piano after several curtain calls and played an encore, I could hardly believe it. His interpretation of Liszt’s transcription of the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde was quietly passionate and moving, but even more impressive was the fact that he wasn’t exhausted after the previous three hours of virtuosic performing. Personally, I was exhausted, and all I’d been doing was watching in amazement. Adding another several minutes onto his performance time only drove home my wonder and awe.

Louis Lortie © Elias
Louis Lortie
© Elias

To rewind: Mr Lortie played the complete Années de pèlerinage on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall as part of David Lang’s ongoing collected stories – marking it as the second wordless work to be performed in the concert series. Composed by Liszt over a period of 50 years, Années de pèlerinage depicts its author's travels across Europe as a concert pianist. Translated as “Years of pilgrimage”, the three books of this massive collection are rarely performed in their entirety. But on Saturday, the lucky audience members were whisked from Geneva to Florence to Villa d’Este during Mr Lortie’s performance. It was fitting to hear the tales of travel in Zankel Hall, with the subway periodically rumbling beneath us.

The first book, “Première année, Suisse”, was composed from 1848 to 1855 and includes one of the first musical imitations of water via the piece “Au bord d’une source”. From the triumphant chords of the opening piece “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell”, I was convinced of Mr Lortie’s power as both musician and technician. The powerful sounds reverberated through his elbows and up to his shoulders, but they weren’t banged out, managing to sound both heavy and weightless. Every note of every chord and passage was emphasized; every dissonance and resolution perfectly heard and felt. After “Chapelle de Guillaume Tell”, the pensive roving and soft pedal of “Au lac de Wallenstadt” presented a lovely contrast. Through this piece and the next two (“Pastorale” and “Au bord du source”), Mr Lortie was smiling, eyes closed, head tilted back. The story didn’t need images or words when you could sense the water gurgling and bursting in the sunshine, droplets glinting with each firm yet delicate note. Mr Lortie infused the staccato chords, chromaticism, and double octaves of the remaining five pieces with energy and force. His pedaling allowed notes to sustain notes, forming puddles of new chords and sounds. From languor to serene contentedness, Mr Lortie let Liszt’s music speak for itself, rather than flaunting his obvious talent.

In Book Two, “Deuxième anniée: Italie”, Mr Lortie kept up his approach, never interjecting himself no matter how virtuosic the passage. The composition of this book took place from 1838 to 1861, overlapping with that of the first. From the warm and inviting opening of “Sposalizio” to its eventual wandering left hand and spidery finger work, his technique remained impeccable and trustworthy. Rather than reserve his energy for the showy sections, in which both hands would traverse the keyboard with thundering, full-hand chords, Mr Lortie graced every note of these Italian-themed pieces with a narrative power. The changes in tempo or dynamics felt like genuine changes in scenery; the bleeding of chords with his liberal pedal usage felt like mixed emotions or blurred memories. Every sound (loud or soft), every silence and everything in between was under Mr Lortie’s command. The final and most well-known piece of this book, “Après une lecture du Dante”, was taut and controlled right up to the angelic quivering near the end. A story within a story, the piece exhibits a recurring D minor theme, representing the moaning of damned souls in hell, but the playing was never melodramatic. Mr Lortie received a standing ovation upon the conclusion, but there was still more to come.

The final book was less virtuosic and somehow more mature and introspective than the first two. Composed between the years of 1877 and 1882, it was begun almost 40 years after the inception of Années de pèlerinage, and Liszt had aged out of his hotshot years as a heart-throb performer and pedagogue. The book begins with questioning phrases, ample pauses, and then notes climbing into chords – chords that were full, but not hammered. Again, the passages fountained into water that trickled down and back up the keyboard, illustrating the gardens of Villa d’Este with movement and modulations before breaking out into jubilant chords as if the sun were peeking out from behind clouds. The “Marche funebre” was more pensive, with harmonies that were probing and unconventional for the time. The light here was more wavery, evolving out of rumbling darkness, a hushed repetitiveness described by Dr Lang as “proto-minimalist”. By contrast, the left-hand tremolo of the final piece, “Sursum corda”, felt like the lights dimming on the masterpiece.