Many classical artists have a musical signature: pieces they have played for so long, so often and with such consummate mastery that their name becomes forever associated with the work. What’s more rare is when a musician decides to retire those same compositions that made their career. When it happens, those last performances take on the weight and poignancy of a valediction.
The incomparable Louis Lortie is on a Canadian tour performing the complete Chopin Études and Preludes. He has said it’s likely the last time he’ll ever play those works in their entirety. You have to respect Lortie for saying he wants to quit while he can still do this feat of stamina and athleticism justice. But to hear him on Friday in Southam Hall play these sets not only with all the facility and razzle-dazzle of his youth, with the added bonus of mature expression and lived-in soul, made his farewell almost tragic.
There was bravura speed and power in Études like Op.10 Nos.1, 4 and 12, and impossibly silky, tightly knitted legato in Op.10 No. 2 and through the showers of thirds in Op.25 No.6. Lortie can limn the subtlest details so you hear these well-trodden pieces afresh: the echo effects in Op.10 No.9, or the playful, duck-duck-goose accents in Op.25 No.3. The soaring Op.10 No.7 was worthy of a Bellini death scene. When Lortie attacked the final Op.25 Nos.11 and 12, it was with a hellbent ferocity that would have left pianists half his age gasping for breath.
The Preludes rewarded listeners with more of Lortie’s superb Chopin pianism: elastic rubato, gorgeous, singing legato, fantastic, fragile pianissimi, jeu perlé like a cloud of fireflies on a summer night. The technique, while formidable, was always subservient to the music. Yes, I’ve heard pianists play the B-flat Minor Prelude faster; but Lortie’s saner pace was better suited to cranking up the dramatic tension between those flywheel right-hand scales and the relentless, chopping-block left-hand octaves.
While Lortie was pouring his soul into Chopin, the audience was doing its best to distract him from his task. Some behaviour was embarrassingly bad: incessant coughing and nose-blowing (seriously, if you’re that sick, just stay home); talking, and clapping at the most inconvenient times. Worst of all was the cell phone that went off during Lortie’s spiderweb-fine Op.10 No.2, followed in the second half by one that broadcast a long crescendo of alien warblings from an upper balcony during the solemn C-minor Prelude. Lortie is almost always gracious and unflappable, but his expression betrayed his annoyance. How this is still possible after the multiple warnings about mobile devices administered before every concert is beyond me.
Lortie returned after an extended standing ovation for an encore: a supernaturally delicate, diaphanous reading of the D-flat Major Nocturne. It was more than some people deserved.