Louis Lortie at Chicago’s Symphony Center

Louis Lortie

Louis Lortie

French Canadian pianist Louis Lortie gave a recital of richly Romantic piano pieces at Chicago’s Symphony Center yesterday (January 20, 2013).

Mr. Lortie is a Franz Liszt specialist so it was no surprise that the highlight of yesterday’s recital was music by this composer.

The recital opened with two transcriptions of music from Richard Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde: The Prelude and the Libestod. Lortie played his own transcription of the Prelude and Liszt’s transcription of the Libestod.


Tristan and Isolde from an 1865 production.


Since the birth of recorded sound a century ago, most of us give little thought to the great importance of transcriptions of opera and orchestral music in the 19th Century. Most people in the middle class or above during the 19th century had access to a piano in their home and playing transcriptions of the newest music was often the only way they ever experienced it.

When the music uses as broad an orchestral palette as Wagner’s does playing technicolor music in — literally black and white — can be a jolt to our modern ears.

Tristan und Isolde held up pretty well in black and white. Lortie’s performance was heart-felt and the music itself has such melodic and harmonic substance that it sounds beautiful on the piano. It was easy to imagine Wagner performing it this way for his firends in the 1850s trying to convince them that this music was the future of opera.

Hugo Wolf‘s transcription of Wagner’s Magic Fire Music from the music drama Die Walkure did not fare as well even with Lrotie’s skillful performance. This music is simply too orchestral in nature to come across convincingly on the piano.

Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886)

Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811 – July 31, 1886)

The first part of the recital concluded with Franz Liszt‘s brilliant Reminiscences of Don Juan (On Themes from Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

Franz Liszt was one of the greatest pianist to ever play the piano. He was also the first “rock star” musician. His performances drove most of Europe — especially the ladies — mad during his heyday. Everyone from Rudee Vallee and Frank Sinatra through the Rolling Stones and Justin Bieber owe Franz Liszt a huge debt for showing the way to musical showmanship.

Liszt was at the height of his popularity when he wrote this Reminiscence in 1841. His purpose here is not to transcribe or copy the music but to give us his own personal impression of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s masterpiece.

List took three melodies from Mozart’s opera and, as a good Romantic, let his imagination and his fingers run wild. The result is a brilliant and challenging piece of piano music. Louis Lortie was up to the challenge and gave us a performance to remember.

Here’s is the Chinese pianist Lang Lang performing this pianistic showpiece:

The second half of the program never quite topped Lortie’s performance of the Reminiscence. He performed two more transcriptions of Wagner showpieces: the Siegfried Idyll and the Overture to Tannhauser. Both pieces were expertly played but did not rise to level of Liszt’s impressions of Don Juan.

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