Louis Lortie takes the measure of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24

Louis Lortie. Photo: Elias Photography

Ludwig van Beethoven said of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 “we shall never be able to do anything like that.” Johannes Brahms hailed it as a “masterpiece of art and full of inspired ideas.”

Louis Lortie would concur. He has played the piece before with NACO on a tour of Canada that took him from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Prince George, B.C. under the baton of Victor Feldbrill.

When he returns to play it on the Southam Hall stage on Wednesday and Thursday at least 75 per cent of the musicians on that tour have left the orchestra, he said.

“I have performed all of the Mozart concertos and I try to go back to them. Some I haven’t revisited for many years.”

The NAC asked him to play this piece and so he has returned to it. The performance will be conducted by Xian Zhang but if Lortie had his druthers he’d play it without a conductor.

“As I am aging, I tend not to like do it with conductors these days. I try to do it from the keyboard. I really believe in Mozart not being conducted because that’s not the way it was done. Mozart would have been appalled to know there was a conductor with these pieces.”

When it was first performed in Vienna in April, 1786, Mozart himself was at the keyboard.

“It’s really like chamber music,” Lortie says. “But these are the compromises we have to do. Either you go to period instruments and you play for 200 people or you accept the name of the game and play on modern instruments. With this music it would be better to have a hall where people can sit around the stage.”

But, he says, with resignation, “it’s fun to try ancient instruments, but how many times do you have the occasion to have the conditions to do it (properly).

When Mozart wrote this piece he was doing things that hadn’t been done that much before, Lortie says.

“I am more interested to know what he does with the music. Composers at that time were not using the minor keys all that much. At least Mozart wasn’t. What is interesting for me is what he is expressing and how he is using the key (signatures). He uses very few keys. He wrote in C minor, D minor and G minor and that’s about it.

In the late 18th century, Lortie says, composers wrote with a mood in mind. And when they used certain keys, they would influence other composers.

Beethoven was influenced to try C minor after he discovered the impact Mozart had on him with his use of the key, Lortie says, adding “we must not forget that for us nowadays it would actually sound more like B minor because the instruments have changed. The pitch has been heightened.

“We cannot pretend we are listening to the Mozart C minor works as if they have just been written. We can’t rewind history, but we can benefit from what has been written after.”

Lortie sees some passages that preview Beethoven in the piece.

“I think there is nothing wrong in emphasizing that.”

Mozart was writing at a hinge point in musical history and with his work he changed classical music.

“It’s certainly an important piece. When he wrote in the minor key, he tended to explore harmonically and melodically things that nobody had (explored) before him. We have to make this very special. We need to remember that, at that time, it was new and it meant a lot.”

Lortie believes it’s important to revisit pieces such as this and reconnect with the tradition.

“The way we perceive this music has changed a lot. I still have a recording of one of the concerts that we did on that (NACO) tour, and it’s amazing, for example, how wind players have changed (their approach).

“People now are separating the musical periods which I think is wonderful. Fifty years ago, orchestras would play Mozart a little bit the way they would play Beethoven or Schubert. Today people are more aware of the differences. Of course, it’s a fiction because nobody was there, there are no recordings. But we try to have an idea of how things could have been in the 1790s. When I teach I very often say to my students, ‘It’s fine what you are doing but this was written in 1786 and it sounds like it was written in 1830.”

It can be difficult, he says, to make these distinctions “especially with modern instruments which tend to blur everything into the same kind of sound, but I think it is all a matter of articulation, phrasing and inflection. These elements are the ones that you revisit now.”

Lortie is currently in North America for a cluster of concerts. Coincidentally he is playing Mozart’s D minor concerto in three weeks in Dallas. And he is doing Beethoven’s C minor concerto which was influenced by Mozart in Detroit.

“There are links everywhere. You can’t avoid the connections.”

One thing Lortie is enjoying is his own LacMus Festival. The first one was last summer and now he is planning the second, which is located near Lake Como in Italy near the  Swiss border.

“At least for that period of the year I know I will be stable and in one place. As you get older you want things that ground you a little more without having to fly too much.

“You know how to cope with flying but the body doesn’t like it very much. The body gets really tired of changing time zones.”

He says he was pleased with how the first festival went and the second one in July is coming together, he says. The lineup should be released in the next few weeks.

“It’s a new thing for me as administrator. I’m learning how to raise funds, which I had never done before. When I meet with orchestra management now I really know what they are going through. How hard it is.”

Louis Lortie plays Mozart
National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Xian Zhang
Where: Southam Hall
When: April 18 and 19 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.