By Scott MacClelland
The two major solo piano recitals in Monterey County this season were both sponsored by the Carmel Music Society and performed at Sunset Center. Van Cliburn gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko opened the CMS season last November and Louis Lortie surveyed the entire Chopin études last Sunday.
Lortie played big, exploring the powerful Steinway at least as much as the études themselves. Even in the next-to-last row where I sat, his music easily, sometimes aggressively, inundated. He made a famous recording of the 27 brief pieces in 1986 for Chandos Records and, 28 years later in Carmel, largely matched it stylistically and technically, but on a scale that far exceeded the technological capabilities of the instruments Chopin himself played on.
The result was as vivid as the effects Chopin created in these exercises, as he called them. They, the études, were directly inspired by the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini whose acrobatics he so admired. Acrobatics, therefore, are part of the études’ DNA and Lortie didn’t hold back. As the world famous American pianist Byron Janis says, “they are extremely difficult” to pull off. Janis notes that each addresses a particular technical challenge “that continues from beginning to end without a moment’s respite.”
While Lortie’s bristling bravura filled every corner of the hall, the softer poetic impulses made for me the more lasting impression. After all, from an audience point of view, Chopin’s gift for melody seems almost to put the lie to the technical demands that make pianists sweat. The Opus 10, No. 3, in E Major is undoubtedly the most famous; who can get that haunting tune out of their head? The Op. 10, No. 6 in E-flat Minor wanders thoughtfully into unprecedented harmonies that would not be explored again until 30 years after the composer’s death, and only by the then-elderly Liszt. The Op. 25, No. 5 in E Minor opens and closes with hiccups, but it too serves up an unforgettable melody in the left hand. The Op. 25, No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, the longest of all, likewise gives the darkly melodic musings to the left hand. The 12th and last in each set flare powerfully, angrily in Op. 10 and stormily in Op. 25. Probably for that reason Lortie placed the less dramatic but no less challenging three Études Nouvelles, composed after Op. 25, at the start of the concert’s second half.
Sustained applause and cheers were rewarded with an encore, Chopin’s posthumously- published Waltz in G-flat.