Louis Lortie’s very first chords were a formidable call to arms, their depth, power and richness justifying at once his request to Wigmore Hall to hire a Fazioli instrument. Those still settling down, switching off phones or flicking through the programme were suddenly transported to Switzerland, and the Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. The ensuing very Lisztian tremolo passage is a typical challenge for the player. In a Liszt tremolo passage there are often voices and harmonic meanings that need to be revealed, and Lortie was masterly in this regard and not only in this item. The next three pieces of the Première année: Suisse (Au lac de Wallenstadt, Pastorale and Au bord d'une source) form a watery pastoral triptych, and here Lortie was gently reflective in evoking the serenely lyrical side of Liszt’s proto-impressionism, the Fazioli’s bell-like treble poetically exploited, his rubato subtle and persuasive.

Louis Lortie
© Elias

Of course the storm breaks in the next item, and the pastoral idyll ends as Orage sends any lingering shepherds scurrying for shelter from the torrent of fierce dissonances, sforzandi, and fortissimo rapid octaves, as this presto furioso discharged its tumultuous energy in Lortie’s fiery reading. The ensuing Vallée d'Obermann’s title comes from Senancour's philosophical novel Obermann, whose eponymous narrator asks the existential questions “What do I want? Who am I? What do I ask of nature?" quoted in Liszt’s score. Here Lortie was impressive in unfolding the narrative line, so that Liszt’s thematic transformation technique was gracefully delineated, and the crucial transitions seemed like new chapters in an unfolding tale. A neatly bucolic rendition of Eglogue and a deeply nostalgic Le mal du pays (Homesickness) led to the haunting Les cloches de Genève: Nocturne as Geneva’s churches combine in a caressing carillon.

After the first of our two intervals we went south for the Deuxième année: Italie. This book is less concerned with landscape and climate and more with art and literature. Thus Sposalizio refers to Raphael’s Milanese painting The Marriage of the Virgin, and Il penseroso to The Thinker, the statue by Michelangelo for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. The first was given by Lortie a mood of simple piety and wonder, and the second had him conjuring the gloomiest sounds from the bass of the Fazioli to suggest profundity of thought. Thence, via the jaunty little march of the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa to literature and the group of three Petrarch sonnets, transcriptions of Liszt’s own settings of those poems. Lortie connected here with his inner tenor so successfully that we did not miss a vocalist, as his lyrical sensitivity evoked some audible sighs from not a few audience members as each one closed. Then to Heaven and Hell, courtesy of Dante and the closing item of the Deuxième année, known usually as the Dante Sonata. The opening descent of tritones (aka diabolus in musica) in double octaves was infernal all right, and Lortie’s performance was Mephistophelean in its command of the metaphysical turbulence of the work and the diabolically suggestive power of the passages that seem to draw upon Dante’s L’Inferno with the sounds of souls in torment. The glimpse of the Paradiso that Liszt offers later is not a final one. In the words of one commentator, at the end of the Dante Sonata “Hell has not frozen over”. Cue much clapping and cheering and gratitude for the second interval. The piano might have been glad too, as a technician came to attend to it during the break.

The Troisième année is late Liszt, much more exploratory stylistically, the earlier riches supplanted by the typical austerity of a master’s late style. Not that the opening Angelus, another evocation of bells, is so elusive. Two of Liszt’s mighty threnodies appear next, as Aux cyprès de la Villa d'Este; Thrénodie I and II . The ancient cypress trees at the Villa d’Este seemingly provoked thoughts of lamentation. Certainly the second of these threnodies sounded death-haunted in Lortie’s hands, perhaps because he dwelt on Wagner’s “Tristan chord which it deploys. In Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este (The Fountains of the Villa d'Este) there is religious significance as Liszt inserted a passage from St John: “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”. The plashing of the great fountain was beautifully evoked by Lortie’s fluent and gleaming playing, but the middle section (with that quote from the Evangelist) had plenty of spiritual gravitas also. So too did the final Sursum Corda (“Lift Up Your Hearts”), which provided a noble conclusion to an uplifting recital. The several empty seats were probably a comment on the current reputation of the composer more than that of the pianist. Both deserved a full house.