Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Under a Loggia

January 24, 2011

Louis Lortie Photo: Elias

The Canadian pianist Louis Lortie returned to Southern California on Sunday to help the Philharmonic Society of Orange County kick off the 200th anniversary year of Franz Liszt's birth. He’s appeared at Segerstrom Concert Hall before, as he has in Los Angeles, and to be honest both times I’ve seen him play in the past, it has been as a pinch hitter for someone else who called in sick. And while those prior appearances were certainly adequate, neither prepared me for the wonderful recital he gave on Sunday in Costa Mesa. Liszt’s 200th birthday is a big one, and Lortie chose to perform what is arguably the composer and pianist’s masterpiece, Années de pèlerinage in its three volume entirety. (Though without all of the movements Liszt later added in an additional supplement to the second suite or "year".) Années is a massive work that encompasses nearly three hours of music. Liszt composed the components of each suite over a period dating from as early as 1848 to as late as 1877. Grouped into three “years,” each suite references geographical locations where Liszt had traveled and is meant to capture some of his own thoughts and experiences of these places. What’s more, the Années captures a cross-section in the development of Liszt’s compositional style. They vary from lush Romantic reflections on Italian poetry to virtuosic flurries in passages that change and morph in tone as they go along.

Lortie tackled the suites in two sittings on Sunday, each 90 minutes long without an intermission. In the afternoon her performed the “first year” and the first four movements of the “third year” leaving the balance of that suite and the “second year” for the evening performance. Lortie specializes in these Romantic solo works and his love for Liszt's huge and varied travelogue showed throughout. He flew at the keys with amazing speed at times only to later turn with a soft and warm touch in other passages. And while it may not have been the most crystalline of performances, his total commitment to the spirit of Liszt was evident throughout. He even managed to hold audiences in both sittings in complete silence throughout with not a clap or interruption at any time. At the end of the afternoon performance on completing Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este from the second suite, he almost appeared to be in tears from emotional if not physical exhaustion. A sentiment I could relate to given the tender beauty of his performance. That is not to say I thought everything was perfect. Lortie seemed a little pedal heavy at times to my ear and the acoustics of the Segerstrom Concert Hall could get a little muddy the lower and louder things got. But this is quibbling over something so deeply felt and on such a large scale. The program ended with an encore of Liszt’s Gondoliers, one of the movements from the supplement to the “second year” the composer published in 1861. Ultimately, the involved and lovely playing was admirable, and Sunday’s performance was a great way to commemorate the upcoming Liszt anniversary.



Thanks for the review of this exciting event! And thanks, also, for the charming E.M. Forester reference in the post title.
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