The "second year" of Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage takes us an a tour around Italy's artistic treasures: painting by Raphael, sculpture by Michelangelo, poetry by Petrarch and Dante and music (allegedly) by Salvator Rosa. The elegant juxtaposition is more one of collation than of original intent, since the individual pieces were written over more than a decade, and the collection was published by Schott a decade after that. Performing them together, as Canadian pianist Louis Lortie did for us last night at the Wigmore Hall, gives a fine overview of the many varied aspects of Liszt's style.

Raphael's Lo Sposalizio; Image in public domain from Wikipedia
Raphael's Lo Sposalizio; Image in public domain from Wikipedia

Within all that variety, certain things were constant. Liszt's music is constantly inventive and constantly in motion. And in every piece, one cannot fail to appreciate Lortie's sheer technical virtuosity. Even in a world where we have come to expect that any competent concert pianist can get through those incredible flurries of notes, Lortie impresses with quite how solidly he achieves this, without the tiniest waver or uncertainty to indicate that this piece might be a tad difficult to play for normal mortals. Throughout, I was particularly taken by Lortie's ability to shift his dynamics smoothly: he would start in a quiet passage with a few notes and move smoothly through to one of Liszt's amazing fortissimi parallel runs without my hearing the shadow of a join.

None the less, I found myself thinking, more than in any other concert I've been to recently, that different people will have very different opinions about many aspects of this performance. Any piano recital is a combination of music, pianist, instrument and room - and each of these leaves room for discussion. For example, the Fazioli piano in the Wigmore Hall has its serious detractors, not least one of our reviewers on Bachtrack. I loved it, hearing a richness of mid-range tone that particularly appealed to me. On the other hand, the acoustics of the room had a considerable effect, not least because I was seated in W1, right at the back of the hall immediately by the wall, so I got a lot of reverberation and blending of the notes, which helped in some passages and didn't help at all in others.

His unquestioned virtuosity aside, Lortie's performance affected me in various ways, good and bad. What delighted me most was the way Liszt's harmonies came through. I've always associated four-tone chords (major sevenths, ninths and the like) with jazz and with impressionist composers like Debussy. The opening pieces, Sposalizio and Il penseroso, turned out to be full of them: I have heard these works before but have never heard those lush harmonies quite so clearly. On the other hand, I heard less melody than usual. The three Petrarch sonnets started life as vocal settings, but I didn't find that Lortie's piano sang to me: somehow, the lilt of the romantic melodies was lost in the phrasing. Rhythmically, also, I wasn't quite there. I was happiest in the powerful, imposing passages played on the beat, but when Lortie played with rubato, my ears didn't pick up either the delight of a delayed note played just when my brain was waiting for it or the frisson of surprise when the note is unexpected but "just works"; rather, I found myself having to reset my internal metronome to be able to continue with the piece.

The work that thrilled me most was the Dante sonata: Liszt leaves you in no doubt that we're in the Inferno rather than the Paradiso and I though Lortie was wonderful in bringing out the fire, brimstone and despair. Overall, however, it was a surprisingly classical performance. Through this anniversary year, we've become used to the idea of Liszt as the great romantic hero and the great showman: to my ears, Lortie interprets him more as the consummate musician, with more elegance and less passion. I came away from the concert thoroughly impressed by the pianism, but with less of a "wow, this is such fantastic music" than I might have hoped. Depending on how well you know the works (I've heard them a few times but I'm not an expert) and on what you expect to find in Liszt, your reaction could have been quite different.