An unusual but inspired program proves entirely different and unfamiliar.

Melbourne Recital Centre
April 14, 2015

French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie has been a regular and much-welcomed visitor to Australia in recent years, and on this occasion presented his Melbourne audience with an unusual but inspired program consisting entirely of preludes. It was rather like seeing a selection of short films instead of a feature, and, with the absence of a developed and sustained narrative, had the effect of being somewhat disjointed. Thrillingly, this made the concert experience an entirely different and unfamiliar one.

Cycles by Gabriel Fauré, Alexander Scriabin, and Frédéric Chopin were performed in reverse chronological order, ending with Chopin and underscoring the significance of his model to the later composers. Chopin’s cycle of preludes in all 24 major and minor keys looked back to the blueprint of JS Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, but while Bach moved through keys in rising semitone order, Chopin worked through the circle of fifths, with the relative minor following each key. This has a completely different effect; instead of a gradual ascension in pitch, we are slowly drawn into a deeper and increasingly complex harmonic vortex. The arc of intensity plateaued beautifully at No 15, the longest and most famous of Chopin’s preludes, also known as the Raindrop for its delicate pulsing repeated notes suggestive of falling rain. Lortie’s reading was mesmerising, with a commanding balance of space and lingering precision. There are different schools of thought regarding whether the 24 Preludes were ‘designed’ to be played as a cycle; either way, Lortie expertly shifted through wildly contrasting tonalities and tempi, inhabiting each splash of colour with the requisite emotional intensity but never overplaying.  

Alexander Scriabin was a fantastically interesting and experimental composer whose works, happily, seem to be making more regular appearances in concert programs. His cycle of 24 Preludes, written when he was in his early 20s, follow Chopin’s model closely but are characterised by an almost manic virtuosic volatility. His eighth prelude, like Chopin’s, is in F-Sharp Minor, and marked allegro agitato. Chopin’s is molto agitato, and recalls the speedy arpeggios of the C-Sharp Minor Fantasie Impromptu. But if anyone can do agitated, it’s Scriabin – his allegro agitato is all interrupted phrases darting uncontrollably, still for seconds, then off again – anxious thoughts, skating and tripping over the keys. Lortie rode this demanding and constantly shifting emotional terrain splendidly, at times raising his hand at the end of a phrase like a speaker cone, as if to cup and guide the sound.

Gabriel Fauré composed his nine Opus 103 preludes in 1909-10, when he was battling deafness late in life. These are beautiful meditative vignettes – impressionistic, with hints of Chopin-like chromatics (No 2), wistful and melancholy (No 4), and fugal, recalling Bach’s counterpoint (No 6) – resigned and calm but undercut with darkness. This program was a great hit with the Recital Centre audience, many of whom stood, cheered and applauded until Lortie reappeared with an encore. More Chopin – his Waltz No 3 in A Minor, Op. 34, No 2, played with a perfectly delicate, rippling touch.

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