Notes and Editorial Reviews
Nocturnes: in E?,
4 Scherzos. Piano Sonata No. 2,
Louis Lortie (pn)
CHANDOS 10588 (79:32)
Louis Lortie has produced a distinguished Chopin discography. In
1986 he recorded the etudes as his first solo CD, a rendition that remains among the preferred versions. In 1997 he recorded the op. 28 Preludes, a technically brilliant account that to me sounds a little chilly emotionally. Thus, I expected great things from his new Chopin collection. Even so, on first listening to the disc my reaction was somewhat incredulous. Could any modern pianist’s Chopin actually be this good? To conduct a reality check, I pulled out Arthur Rubinstein’s 1932 set of the scherzos and 1946 recording of the Second Sonata. If you haven’t heard Rubinstein’s 78s, you aren’t fully aware of what he was capable of. I concluded that Rubinstein outdistanced Lortie a bit in sheer machismo, although how macho Chopin should be I actually don’t know. But in fantasy and the play of light and shadow, Lortie comes very close to equaling Rubinstein. This disc is just superb Chopin.
Lortie here plays a fine-sounding Fazioli piano. He prefaces each of the scherzos with a nocturne. Lortie explains in a note that early piano recitalists were in the habit of offering improvisations prior to each piece. Nelson Goerner and Etsuko Hirosé have done something similar with nocturnes before the ballades. Lortie’s choice of nocturnes is very appealing. He begins with Chopin’s earliest nocturne, op. 72/1, sustaining its long melodic line beautifully—until it diminishes into nothingness. Opening the First Scherzo truly
, Lortie performs its second section
, like a reverie. The Nocturne, op. 55/2, has a telling ambiguity. The Second Scherzo begins with a sense of breadth and spaciousness, while its second section is jewel-like in tone. Wistfulness characterizes the Nocturne, op. 62/2. The rhythm at the start of the Third Scherzo is unusually pronounced, revealing the influence of Bach; this leads to a rich statement of the second subject. The counterpoint in the coda is especially clear.
The Nocturne, op. 62/1, offers a tender, quiet romantic interlude. In the Fourth Scherzo, the big tune of the second section is especially ravishing. Lortie’s version of the Second Sonata challenges my memory of Abbey Simon playing it at Rutgers University in 1988. Lortie takes the exposition repeat in the first movement, which is welcome given his slightly brisk tempo. After the turbulence of the opening, the second subject exhibits poise. The scherzo begins very precisely rhythmically without rushing, leading to a tranquil second section. The funeral march displays calm grandeur, followed by the movement’s meditative second section. The return of the march after this has added tension. The sonata concludes with a fourth movement of unusual clarity.
Chandos veteran Ralph Couzens produced and engineered this disc in the Britten Studio at Snape Maltings. The sound is pleasantly airy and full, though a little distant. I am hesitant to recommend alternative CDs. For the record, I like Cécile Ousset and Kevin Kenner in the scherzos, and Ousset and Leif Ove Andsnes in the sonata. Suffice to say I think Louis Lortie is one of our finest pianists, and this new disc displays him at his formidable best. The album is titled Volume 1; I eagerly await subsequent releases.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
Louis Lortie joins several others in the past few years to put down a complete Chopin cycle. It remains to be seen just how complete this is. Over on Zephyr, Ian Hobson is making the completist claim and issuing some remarkable music-making in the process. Lortie has already recorded the Etudes and Preludes for Chandos (CHAN8482 and 9597); one has to assume that there will be re-recordings to give integrity to the intégrale.
Lortie was a prize-winner in the Leeds International Competition in 1984, and in the same year won First Prize in the Busoni Competition. Lortie plays a Fazioli to great effect. It appears to be a first-class instrument, and is exquisitely prepared. His own introductory notes refer to the lost art of improvisation, wherein a performer would improvise before the main piece of substance. As an approximation to this, Lortie prefaces each Scherzo with a Nocturne, an interesting idea that, thanks to the intelligence of his programming, works a treat.
The Nocturne Op. 72/1 is, despite its late opus number, Chopin’s first essay in the genre and reveals the origins in the works of Field. Written probably in Warsaw in 1827, it is nevertheless Chopin through and through. Lortie builds the textures gently. The piano is caught well by the engineers, with just the right amount of presence. The First Scherzo follows, its finger-twisting demands as nothing under Lortie’s sterling technique. Lortie brings a sense of play true to the origins of the title into his reading as well as a sure sense of direction. Coupled with the excellent recording, this is a winning combination. He is lighter than Pollini (DG) yet he conveys the darkness of Chopin just as well. The central lullaby is magnificently intimate.
The Nocturne Op. 55/2 is a masterpiece of Chopinesque counterpoint. Out of its final waves emerges the famous B flat minor Scherzo. Lortie’s finger strength and fluidity once more impresses. Moments of passion withheld (around the 5:50 mark) make the link to the Nocturnes clear. Intimacy is the watchword of the E major Nocturne, Op. 62/2, an intimacy that, intriguingly, leaks into the C sharp minor Scherzo, where there is less “fuoco” than Chopin perhaps envisaged; that word is, after all, in the initial directive by Chopin: “Presto con fuoco”. The famous cascading figures seem a touch lacking in magic here.
The companion Nocturne from Op. 62, No. 1 in B, is a complex piece, more dramatic than most Nocturnes. Lortie tracks its journey impeccably through to the positively radiant, trill-encrusted statement of the theme. If Lortie cannot quite convey the majesty of the E major Scherzo in the way Richter (EMI) does, his is nevertheless a creditable account.
So far, this is a most impressive disc. If the Nocturnes do not eclipse Pollini (DG) and the Scherzos do not knock the greats off their perches, the Sonata comes close. The opening chords are as portentous as any; the unrest of the
Doppio movimento put me in mind of Argerich’s classic DG account (currently residing on 463 663-2). Lortie repeats back to the
Grave, as many pianists these days do. He does not sound absolutely convinced however; Uchida in live performance has provided an electric shock at this point. There is a sense of struggle to the Scherzo that is not inappropriate, just as a sense of inevitability pervades the portentous parts of the Funeral March. The finale, though, sounds somewhat etude-like – hard to imagine wind around grave-stones here, it is more like a draft for an extra study to Op. 25 that never came to fruition.
All credit to the producer and engineer, Ralph Couzens, for the sound quality. This is a stimulating issue, the true excellence of which lies in the Nocturnes and the Scherzos.
Colin Clarke, MusicWeb Internaional
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