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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 1

Louis Lortie: Back to Beethoven

by Lucie Renaud / September 1, 2001

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Louis Lortie promises to be the main event of the country's classical music scene this fall. The Canadian pianist, who has been living with his family in Berlin for several years, will arrive here with great fanfare for a grand tour. After stops in Quebec City he will appear at Montreal's Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. There he will play Beethoven's five concertos, among other works, then go on to spend the whole of October at the Salle Pierre-Mercure in the Centre Pierre-Péladeau as part of the Beethoven Plus series. Not only will he perform the Master of Bonn's monumental thirty-two sonatas for piano, but also the ten sonatas for violin and piano (or rather for piano and violin, as given in the original title) with the phenomenal James Ehnes, as well as the five sonatas for cello and piano with his German colleague Jan Vogler, and the six piano trios.

This Beethoven banquet is mainly due to producer Daniel Poulin, a close friend of the late, iconoclastic Glenn Gould. Poulin was bowled over by the thirty-two-sonata program Lortie gave in Toronto nearly two years ago, and immediately suggested he do the same in Montreal. Lortie agreed, but decided to include all Beethoven's chamber music on the program. News travels fast in the classical music world. Charles Dutoit got in touch right away. At first he met with resistance. “But we want to have you for the concertos. You can't do the sonatas in the same year. We can't do everything all at once; the audience just isn't there.” The two producers finally worked things out and decided that this large-scale project was viable. Will Montrealers rise to the challenge? “Time will tell,” says Lortie.

Over the years, Lortie has focused his virtuoso talent on the works of Ravel (a recording of the entire œuvre for piano), Chopin (the concerts devoted to the Polish genius's Études in the Salle Claude-Champagne still echo in the minds of more than one Montreal music-lover), Mozart (Lortie has appeared with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from the beginning of its series, Mozart Plus), and Liszt. However, he has always had a deep love for Beethoven. The first classical music that he remembers being played “adequately” by his grandmother is the Sonata Opus 13, the “Pathétique”, the first that he himself worked on and that will open the festival, although he admits not having thought about it when preparing the program.

“It's the work of a lifetime,” says Lortie. “I worked on the sonatas slowly but surely throughout my teenage years, and I've continued to do it. The advantage of playing them all is that I won't have to pick and choose among them, but can give each as much attention as I like. Why should you omit part of this extraordinary sequence? Artists like Beethoven are geniuses throughout their lives and you don't want to cut anything out.” Lortie becomes lyrical when he talks of Beethoven. “He's a genius! He decides to write a new sonata, and each time he succeeds in completely revolutionizing the genre. His imagination is unbelievable. A cycle like this one demonstrates the scope of his greatness. If you listen to only three of the major sonatas, you say to yourself, ‘A stroke of genius,' but here we're talking about a whole life of genius, and you tell yourself that here is someone who really had a divine gift and brought it to its full fruition.”

This isn't the first time that Lortie has performed the complete Beethoven sonatas, either in concert or for a recording. Chandos will bring out the most recent recording in the fall as well as a boxed set. The series was spread over a two-year period, quite unlike the schedule set for this fall.

“It's going to take a lot of energy—but mainly spiritual energy,” admits Lortie. Knowing he will be surrounded by other musicians for most of the concerts (except for the last great sonatas, often described as the Everest of the piano repertoire) seems to give him the greatest pleasure of all. “There will be lots of rapport, and I think that will help my energy level. If I had to do fifteen or sixteen solo concerts in the same month, it might be a bit much.”

Lortie has played all over Europe with cellist Jan Vogler, his most constant chamber music partner. The young James Ehnes has become part of the basic chamber group as well, partly because Lortie had heard a lot about him, but also because he was looking for someone versatile enough to work with the original two—spontaneity at the service of experience, so to speak. “Clearly, he's the youngest of all, and the one who, I would say, has the least experience but is also the most flexible. When you reach a certain age, you may become less adaptable. Even so, Ehnes has already mastered the entire repertoire,” says Lortie, who seems surprised, although he too was a child prodigy. In his view, his own progress toward becoming the accomplished musician he is went at a very comfortable pace, which suited him perfectly. “I don't know if I would have been able to stand the pressure at too young an age. The travelling, the number of concerts—there's more and more pressure because the more you play, the better you're known, and the greater are the public's expectations.” All this from an artist who (even though he had to squeeze this interview in between two flights) says he has no idea how many concerts are on his calendar for next year! “It doesn't interest me. Those are statistics. I never look at the numbers,” he says with a brush of the hand. “I study my timetable to see what seems possible. You have to spend some time at home, thinking.”

This is an idea he shares with his students he meets in Imola, Italy, where he has been teaching for eight years. This international summer academy offers some thirty selected pianists a chance to get close to a number of master musicians in a fairly informal setting. Lortie takes the time to talk about the works they're studying, of course, but also to discuss the direction their lives will take if they decide to give themselves completely to a concert career. “I don't like to generalize, but I would say the situation is more difficult for today's generation,” he says. “Even highly gifted musicians have far more difficulty making a name for themselves. Today, what people want is overnight success, something tangible that will make news and can be immediately used for publicity purposes. I'm lucky enough not to mix with management circles, but I'm aware of what they will try in order to save the recording industry! Classical music wasn't conceived to be a commercial commodity; it was never created for a mass audience. It's crazy to try to repeat the million-plus sales of the three tenors. There have always been special cases, like Kissin, but you've got to take the long-term view. Young artists realize that they'll only be successful if they make their mark right away. They're not given much time, and it's a pity.”

Lortie also deplores the fact that there are so few alternatives, apart from competitions, to give the younger generation a chance he get known. “There's a certain saturation level. It doesn't mean as much to be a winner as it did twenty years ago, even of a major competition,” he adds, clearly worried. This from the man who was the judges' unanimous choice for first prize in the 1984 International Busoni Competition. “You have to find your own way by letting yourself be discovered through brilliant concerts, or you may be lucky enough to have conductors who take an interest in you,” says Lortie, whose Montreal public has remained very faithful over the years. This is the voice of experience. He was only thirteen when he played with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra the first time, under the baton of Franz-Paul Decker (a Beethoven concerto!), and has a special relationship with the current maestro, Charles Dutoit.

Dutoit (who is only coming back to Montreal in October for his sixty-fifth birthday) will not be conducting the orchestra for the Beethoven series. Lortie himself, a privileged friend, will conduct from the piano, as do more and more European pianists such as Christian Zacharias, Mitsuko Uchida, or Andras Schiff. He would have liked Dutoit to be on the podium, but was not happy about the idea of negotiating with five different conductors for the five concertos, as had first been proposed. “There would have been no continuing thread. The orchestra and I know each other so well that I think it would be much better to work face to face and not by a series of conference calls with different conductors,” he says, chortling.

Lortie has unquestionably refined his interpretations with time. His enthusiasm is again evident when he speaks of “dear Ludwig” (whose name is, after all, the German equivalent of Louis). “Beethoven fully understands the usefulness of the medium. If he writes a piano sonata, we know perfectly well that the work will be intimate, speaking directly to us. When you listen to a concerto, you feel it's a discourse on humanity, and the relationship of Man to the world and the universe. The fourth concerto is still the most extraordinary example of this phenomenon, with its confrontation and dialogue, a fascinating paradox of the piano/orchestra relationship. You'd think Beethoven was the first to exploit this balance. As he composed a piece he mastered the medium, the key, the general plan. The symphonies had another approach.”

Lortie plans to undertake the symphonies as well, through transcriptions, but he also intends to follow in the footsteps of Ashkenazy and Barenboim by climbing onto the podium to conduct Beethoven's First, a more restricted work that makes a perfect début vehicle for someone who has already conducted all the tutti of the concertos. Lortie isn't going to let it go to his head, however. “A conductor can do a lot with an orchestra, but an orchestra can also do a great deal without a conductor,” he notes in his defence. “I'm dealing in ideas, and we'll see what comes of it. I have no ambition to be a fulltime conductor or of being a Karajan.” He says he is fascinated by the way in which Furtwängler approached Beethoven's symphonies. “Now, just as when I was sixteen, I get a shock each time I listen to Furtwängler. There's nothing more powerful; the fervour is incredible. They say that when he steps on the stage the musicians immediately want to play for him as for no other conductor.”

It's a good bet that the musicians will feel the same way about Lortie, and that the same musical magic will result. An artist of his intense energy will continue to captivate audiences.

[Translated by Jane Brierley]

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