Louis Lortie, the French-Canadian pianist, may be one of classical music’s best kept secrets. Few musicians can take a relatively light-weight work like the Liszt-Schubert “Wanderer Fantasy” and express through it a dazzling array of ideas and feelings without asking the work to be more than it is.

Louis Lortie
© Elias Photography

I heard Lortie play the fantasy in Vienna four years ago with Australian conductor Simone Young, and was impressed then, but more so this weekend in his performance with The Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Lortie’s playing is all about shape and texture: how the musical line can be as airy as a soufflé, then thicken and grow deep as the piano’s arc shifts in intensity. Under Lortie’s touch, the keys sing with a unique voice, as tender as it is thrilling.

Attired in his now-signature white Nehru jacket and red-soled trainers, Lortie’s countryman brought balance and cheerfulness to the four-movement work. Nézet-Séguin is known for a casual, audience-friendly approach to the classics, but allowed the pianist’s thundering delivery to at times eclipse the full orchestra, only to sink back into a solo of indescribable delicacy in the first movement.

The only false note came around the mid-point in the fantasy, when for a minute or so the texture of the orchestra seemed dense – the fault of the overly eager adapter (Liszt), I think, rather than the performance. Otherwise, clarity and sparkling intelligence made this work pure delight.

A touch of the dense texture in the middle of the fantasy seemed to have crept through intermission and cast a spell on the first two movements of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Though composed more than a century ago, the five-movement behemoth requires what we still would term a “modern orchestra” – around 100 performers on cutting-edge instruments. The work consumes one-and-a-quarter hours, a long time even by modern standards, but has a range of ideas, emotions, and developmental schemes that keep the listener engaged, even enthused. The emergence and reemergence of the motif from Beethoven’s own Fifth Symphony is a driving heartbeat throughout the work, not an overworked tribute to a time long past.

However, some of the clarity that characterized Lortie’s playing would have been welcome in the orchestra about a dozen minutes into the work, just after the part where Mahler instructs the clarinets and horns to elevate their bells. Perhaps some of the fault is Mahler’s attempt to say everything in these first two movements so that it becomes program music without a program.

After the pause that signifies the start of Part 2 (the third movement), the orchestra seemed more comfortable with the composer’s voice. While the first two movements revealed some stagey melodies (such as the cellos’s Bei mir bist du schön-like tune in Part 1) harking back to Mahler’s earlier style, there is more interesting counterpoint and a purposeful drive from the third movement onward. Need we mention as well that peculiar pizzicato duet between the first violin and first cello, inexplicable but oddly effective.

The fourth movement Adagietto for harp and strings – a familiar stand-alone concert piece – never sounded lovelier. Nézet-Séguin exercised an impressive measure of restraint to mold this movement not into a sentimental bypath, but as hushed offering and benediction for all those present. Perhaps that, rather than the brilliant conclusion with all instrumentalists on board in a single musical idea, is the crowning glory of the great art Mahler has bequeathed to us.