At this time of the year, the French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is normally resident in his adopted home in the Italian lakes, enjoying a much-needed holiday. But this summer he brought Italy to London in a lunchtime recital which perfectly captured the vivid sights, sounds and colours of Italy, in particular Naples and Venice, in evocative music by Liszt, Poulenc and Fauré.

Louis Lortie © Elias
Louis Lortie
© Elias

Franz Liszt also had a passion for the Italian Lakes: he lived with Marie d’Agoult at Bellagio on Lake Como in 1837-8, and composed music inspired by his travels through Italy, most notably the second volume of his Années de pèlerinage. Lortie, a keen advocate of Liszt's piano music, included Venezia e Napoli in his programme, a suite of three works which Liszt added as a supplement to the Années. For this he reworked two of four pieces which he had already composed in 1840, grouping them around an adaptation of “Nessun maggior dolore” from Rossini’s Otello. In the programme, these connected neatly with the opening pieces – a pair of Soirées musicales, entertaining transcriptions by Liszt of songs for voice and piano by Rossini. These works, displaying Liszt at his most extravagant, were full of Italian holiday sounds and activities – dancing, singing, the bustle of  streetlife – and Lortie delivered them with a flamboyance and wit which had the audience cheerfully grinning and applauding, while a sunny, holiday mood infused Cadogan Hall.

In a change to the published programme running order, Poulenc's Napoli followed. Poulenc began this three-movement suite during a trip to Italy in 1922 and completed it in 1925. As Lortie said in the programme notes, this music is about "the pure pleasure of being in Italy". It is uncomplicated yet evocative, suggesting relaxing summer evenings in Naples. Lortie's clean pedalling, transparent sound and acute sense of pacing brought the music to life with an enchanting vibrancy and colour, and the central Nocturne was particularly lovely for its rippling left hand figures, suggesting waves gently lapping at the shoreline.  

To Venice next with two Barcarolles by Fauré, the barcarolle being a Venetian gondolier's song, its rocking rhythm reminiscent of the gondolier's oar stroke. These pieces were darker and more introspective, suggesting Venice out of season, misty and shadowy. Lortie highlighted the colours and textures of Fauré's writing in the lower register contrasted with some delightfully clear bell-like sounds in the treble. The combined effect was atmospheric and expressive. 

Speaking of his music inspired by his Italian travels, Liszt said, "I've tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions," and in Venezia e Napoli Liszt's imagination is certainly given full rein, his musical images perfectly captured by Lortie's intelligent virtuosity. The Gondoliera was particularly arresting, at once poetic, sensuous and emotional, while the frenetic  Tarantella brought this fine lunchtime recital to a high-spirited, rollicking conclusion.