Jon Ciliberto | 2 MAY 2022
Saturday’s afternoon performance at Spivey Hall began with pianist Louis Lortie walking on stage on crutches, then sheepishly admitting to a recent skiing accident. Although awkward on his feet, once seated at the piano his fingers flew with their usual speed, clarity, and strength through a program of Ballades — a unique organizing principle, with the somewhat oddity of one Brahms’ four-in-one into the mix.
“Ballades” rarely live up to the name, in that only occasionally are they obviously narratives. None of the Ballades on the program have a true base text, and even Liszt’s No. 1, subtitled “Ballade d’Ukraine,” is likely unconnected with the tale told by its underlying folk song.
“Ukraine” on the program, of course, has particular relevance at present, and Mr. Lortie acknowledged this at the start, speaking emotionally of his friends from that country.
The program began with Johannes Brahms’ (1833 – 1897) Op. 10, a set of four individual Ballades and dauntingly complicated in structure. Spivey Hall’s simultaneously spacious and intimate sound served well in this work, with the thorny chord progressions and delicate harmonies both finding one’s ears with equal coherence. One feels at Spivey that there is only the music, nothing more.
The harmonies did hang in the air more than expected, and I wondered about that skiing injury and its effect on the right foot’s pedal work. During Lortie’s admission, a friend noted the same, saying, “Save that for the Impressionists!” On the other hand, two others opined that the extra pedal might have been by choice.
Whether a compensation for the admitted pain the performer was suffering, or merely as a connective to the other works on the program, the open-airing of harmonic structures in the Brahms was justified to my ears by the harmonies themselves. Or, speaking strictly in technical terms (as one says of world-class athletes), Lortie, at 85%, is still better than 99% of the world’s professional pianists.
During brief post-performance comments, Mr. Lortie noted that Brahms’ Four Ballades are positively Wagnerian in their complex, even “bizarre” structure, declaring that Wagner was perhaps influenced by Brahms here, rather than the other way around.
If Brahms’ Ballades were narratives, then, they were ones rich in structural forms rather than in a strong narrative voice.
The latter, of course, is the province of Gabriel Fauré (1845 – 1924). His work tends to speak in a direct, intimate voice. His Ballade in F-sharp major (dedicated to his teacher, Camille Saint-Saëns) sounds for its first notes like an “I” work, the music a personal statement, although setting a high technical bar for the performer. (Franz Liszt, no slouch at the keyboard, is said to have given up when trying to sight-read it, remarking, “I have run out of fingers.”) The music, to me, conveyed a series of in-between phrases, a story made ambiguous by connective episodes and gentle digressions.
Technical hurdles are Mr. Lortie’s bread and butter, as a master himself of the work of Liszt. Still, his playing of the Claude Debussy Ballade Slave was remarkable for its adroit lightness — light on water came to mind — and poignant mystery. At times (and this is not unusual for Debussy), I imagined that the composition played to a different rhythm would be entirely at home in a jazz club. Mr. Lortie didn’t jazz it up, but his playing left that tale open to the listener’s ear. As a story, the Debussy Ballade carries the listener off willingly and easily.
The program’s second half was wholly the Ballades of Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), and the usual tension between the overly showy and expressive against compositional merit was not absent. Therefore, I was appreciative of Mr. Lortie’s choice of presenting a program that balanced Liszt’s fireworks with the more varied compositional work of Brahms, Debussy, and Faure.
However, one cannot but be impressed and even overwhelmed by Mr. Lortie’s heroic work, not only in bringing together Brahms and Liszt, but in the three Liszt Ballades with their thundering lower registers, reminiscent on this Saturday of distant grumbling cannon fire, the martial (if of toy soldiers) theme of the Ballade No. 1, the tender Ukrainian Ballade (at times seductive, at times a bombardment, at times a dream), and the switch-on-a-dime shifts from the grandest to the tiniest in the Ballade No. 2.
As I overheard exiting the hall: “He channels Liszt.” ■