It was a wildly enthusiastic audience that gave pianist Louis Lortie a prolonged standing ovation and lots of bravos yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center as he concluded his performance of the complete Chopin Etudes – all twenty-seven of them. This much-anticipated recital was well attended and included a fair amount of young piano students thanks to the Carmel Music Society’s policy of admitting students free when accompanied by parents paying $10 each.
As a highly acclaimed pianist with a successful career, Louis Lortie’s virtuosity is all encompassing and equal to any pianist alive today. There is literally nothing he can’t play, so we were not surprised that he tossed off all the Chopin Etudes like child’s play. In fact, his extraordinary technique ended up being something of a detriment, since it encouraged him to play almost everything too fast and too loudly.
Listening to Lortie as he pushed the upper limits of speed and volume in his performance of the Etudes, I kept asking myself, “Where’s the beauty? Where’s the poetry? Where’s the majesty of these magnificent creations?” Is his unlimited virtuoso technique leading him down a path toward glibness at the expense of substance? Are his excessive dynamics and too rapid tempos numbing him to the beauty and subtlety of these pieces? Is he assuming that audiences won’t know the difference between virtuoso display and expressive performance? Is he abdicating his artistic responsibility to Chopin’s intentions by selling out to the crowd?
These are all legitimate questions. The quintessential Chopin Etude was created to address various aspects of pianistic difficulties. However, Chopin’s genius developed the etude as an art form uniquely musical and meaningful as compared to the dry-as-dust etudes from such composers as Czerny, Clementi and Moscheles.
One other aspect of Chopin performance needs to be considered. The magnificent Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano on stage for this event is a gigantic black leviathan weighing half a ton and is an instrument that reached its final stage of design development in the 1890s as an instrument more appropriate for Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos than for performing works by the composers who preceded them.
Every summer we host the Carmel Bach Festival, and every summer we hear a lot about the festival’s commitment to historically informed performance and its respect for period instruments. It is interesting to consider the keyboard instruments of Chopin’s era. He was accustomed to the dulcet tones of instruments created by Pleyel and Erard. These were slightly smaller lightly strung instruments without the five hundred pound cast iron plate found in a modern Steinway that helps give it a high tensioned scale and such powerful volume and sonority.
I am not suggesting that we should hear Chopin performed on recreations of period instruments, for the modern Steinway concert grand is a glorious instrument in its present configuration and suitable for everything from Bach to Ligeti. However, when overplayed its sound can become raucous and ugly. Although the great pianists from the golden age of piano – such artists as Rachmaninoff, Moisewitsch, Cortot, Gieseking, Ashkenazy and Bolet – never produced an ugly sound, there is a new trend among virtuosos to play everything as fast and loud as possible. We are now recognizing among piano virtuosos four different levels of loud playing – forte, fortissimo, bangissimo and blastissimo! It is very much to Mr. Lortie’s credit that he never resorted to blastissimo, but there was enough bangissimo so that the tone of the Carmel Music Society’s Hamburg Steinway frequently sounded hard and glassy. That Mr. Lortie can play poetically when he wishes to was evident in some of the more lyrical sections of the Etudes, and especially in the lovely single encore, the Chopin Waltz in G-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 1.