Canadian pianist Louis Lortie gambled on his unorthodox programming at Sherwood Auditorium Saturday (January 14) for the La Jolla Music Society.A solo recital devoted entirely to orchestral transcriptions, most of which were from Richard Wagner’s operas, was bound to test the patience of any audience, and, indeed, a few folk departed politely at intermission. Although these virtuoso piano transcriptions and pastiche opera “reminiscences” were staples of 19th-century recitals, our compact discs, DVD’s and convenient YouTube clips of arias and even complete opera performances have eliminated a primary purpose of these period transcriptions.
But then, some of this repertory, such as Franz Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Don Juan,” were concocted as stunning showpieces to parade the technical prowess of the performer. Lortie placed Liszt’s incredible elaboration of three segments from Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the heart of his program, realizing it with jaw-dropping bravura and stamina. From the maelstrom of the opera’s climax, where the Don is confronted and dragged down to Hell, Lortie simulated the raucous orchestral commotion with scales blazing up and down the keyboard—sometimes in contrary motion.
He brought out the brutish undertone of the Don’s seduction duet with Zerlina (“Là ci darem la mano”) and then successfully coped with Liszt’s brutish (to the performer, that is) variations on the duet’s themes, including flailing cross-hand figurations and fistfuls of parallel thirds at treacherous tempos. For the work’s conclusion, Liszt pumped up the Don’s “Champagne” Aria with the madcap brio of an Offenbach opera buffa, which Lortie accomplished with requisite panache.
Lortie’s own transcription of Wagner’s famous “Prelude und Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde proved a far more serious endeavor, although it brought out the instrument’s difficulties in simulating the sumptuous sustaining qualities of an orchestral string section. In spite of Lortie’s deft use of the sustain pedal, the soft, slow, opening lines of the “Prelude” kept vanishing as the listener attempted to connect this well-known chromatic conundrum in the imagination. And the breadth of the more forceful sections of the “Prelude” was compromised by the constant percussive attacks by the piano that were needed to generate sufficient sound to fill the room.
I thought Lortie showed his best command—both as performer and transcriber—in the “Liebestod,” with its more subtle amorous effusions and rapturous, as opposed to thunderous, climaxes.
In Liszt’s transcription of the Overture to Tannhäuser, Lortie captured the grand nobility of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus,” the opera’s signature theme that opens the Overture, although when that theme later resounded in the left hand accompanied by swift descending octaves in the right hand, the effect was more like a demanding piano etude than grand orchestral climax. Sybaritic antics from the Venusberg scene did not sound as sensual from the piano as they do when played by the orchestra.
Josef Rubenstein’s transcription of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” was perhaps the most successful transcription on Lortie’s program. Its gentler, more traditionally lyrical themes gave Lortie the opportunity to fashion them with the elegant phrasing that is his trademark.
Does this sort of all-transcription program have a future in the crowded market of top-drawer piano recitals? While the Sherwood audience showered Lortie with approval, I think it is safe to say that this affirmed his virtuosity rather than his choice of music. I too was amazed, but I left the recital with an empty feeling.