Music review: Louis Lortie’s Liszt at Segerstrom Concert Hall

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The Liszt year has begun. Ours is an era in which superstars have become galaxies, and here is the perfect excuse to scrutinize music’s first specimen, the Hungarian composer and pianist who was the 19th century forerunner of Lang Lang and Lady Gaga.

The kickoff for the Franz Liszt bicentennial (his birthday will be in October) was not in Budapest (his birthplace) or Paris (his cult’s birthplace) but in Costa Mesa. The Canadian pianist Louis Lortie played the complete “Années de Pèlerinage,” a musical diary of Liszt’s years of pilgrimage (and romantic dalliance) in Switzerland and Italy, divided into a marathon of two recital programs, afternoon and evening, at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

The day was glorious, both for spectacular virtuosic playing and for spectacular music that revolutionized the piano repertory. But forget about Mr. Lang and Ms. Gaga. Liszt was in a class of his own. He didn’t merely manipulate the media, he created it.

Associated with this Liszt celebration, part of the Philharmonic Society season, was an absorbing talk by Liszt biographer Alan Walker Wednesday night at Irvine Barclay Theatre. Liszt, Walker reminded us, introduced the term ‘recital,’ was the first pianist to play a wide repertory of music and from memory, created new piano techniques and musical forms, invented the master class and originated the international music festival. Walker makes an excellent case for Liszt being not just the most charismatic musician of the 19th century but also the most influential. Walker’s three-volume biography makes an even better case for Liszt being the most fascinating composer of the 19th century.

But that was then. The lecture was poorly attended. Segerstrom was far from full Sunday. I’m convinced, though, that separate tickets for talk ($15-$36) and recitals ($30-$195 for each) scared many away. Lortie repeats the marathon in La Jolla next Sunday ($25-$75 for the full cycle).


Still, those at Segerstrom who could afford it Sunday got their money’s worth along with bragging rights of having heard Lortie’s staggering first complete traversal in concert of these works.

The first two volumes represent the years Liszt spent with the Countess Marie d’Agoult in Switzerland and Italy. Liszt, who was 24 and a sensation in Paris, ran off with this older married aristocrat. They had three illegitimate children, and idyllic times became bad times when Liszt began missing his concert life and she became possessive.

The first book begins by creating the ambience of William Tell’s Chapel on Lake Lucerne with straightforward resonant chords. Lortie produced a booming sound that reverberated with a you-are-there transporting power that even 3-D Imax can’t approximate. I have never heard such a piano sound in Segerstrom, and this was just the start of some of the most exceptional Liszt playing I have ever encountered anywhere.

In that Swiss year, Liszt depicts flowing brooks and Lake Wallenstadt, Obermann’s Valley, a violent storm, the bells of Geneva. The writing is full of lovely gossamer effects and the most thunderous passages imaginable, with an erotic ardor that underscores almost everything.

The couple went next to Italy, where Franz started to sound more taken with art than with Marie. Most of the famous pieces come from this second year, such as Liszt’s impossibly flamboyant arrangements of songs he set to three Petrarch sonnets and his epically agitated and frighteningly difficult 15-minute “Dante” Sonata, which was begun in 1836 but worked on for many years (all of these pieces were refashioned for publication long after they were written). [For the record: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Petrarch wrote sonatas.]

The final year represents Liszt’s later life, when he had given up worldly extravagance and become an abbé in Italy. In these seven pieces he advanced harmony and form and deepened musical content. He made Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” possible, he made the piano music of Debussy and Ravel possible.

Lortie took an odd approach. His afternoon recital included the Swiss numbers and the first four from the final year, played without pause over 90 minutes. After dinner he began where he left off and then segued into the second year, ending with a shockingly fast performance of “Dante.” Tremolo passages blurred into repeated-note passages, as if that were humanly possible.

One can question Lortie’s strange overall concept, but not the sheer magnificence of his playing. His bravura, his amazing display of color, his beautiful way with a melodic line, his delicate play of inner lines, his imaginative pedaling is each an awesome aspect of a monster technique. Maybe the Segerstrom Center did starving young pianists a favor with its elitist pricing. The ease with which Lortie accomplishes the impossible would be enough to discourage anyone.

This Canadian pianist does not display the flamboyant stage presence of a Lang Lang, let alone a Liszt. But he does produce a Lisztian musical presence that is downright spooky.


Louis Lortie will play Franz Liszt, and play and play

-- Mark Swed