Wednesday 24 June 2009

Aldeburgh 2009: Louis Lortie's Night Fantasies (by Schumann, Holliger, Carter and Ravel)

When I'm not doing my day job, or writing reviews, I also find time to help manage Venue 40 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (which is run largely by volunteers and for charity). Throughout the day during the festival, theatre companies will come up to the box office and ask how their show is selling. One of the nicest things is to be able to tell them they have sold out, or are close to doing so; one of the worst is to have to tell them they're still in single figures. Thus I felt for Louis Lortie this evening as he played to a bafflingly undersold Maltings. This was not a difficult programme by Aldeburgh standards (or even more generally) and he's a very fine pianist. It made you wonder if there was some major event going on in Suffolk to which we had not been invited. Still, those that were there more than made up for it with enthusiasm and those that stayed away, well, more fool them, quite frankly.

The programme had been very well chosen too, with four out of the five works having a nocturnal theme. The first half started and closed with two Schumann pieces, his Vier Nachtstucke, op.23 and Drei Fantasiestucke, op.111. From the outset Lortie showed his fine pianism - there was both wonderful delicacy and clarity, but also plenty of power when called for, and achieved without recourse to thumping. His rich sound was especially clear in the Fantasiestucke which he shaped beautifully.

Sandwiched between these was Heinz Holliger's Elis: drei Nachtstucke fur Klavier. These three pieces were subtitled Annunciation of death, Mortal fear and mercy and Journey to heaven. Of these, only the second seemed to completely capture its subject, being nicely atmospheric, possessing a 'things that go bump in the night' quality to it. The third was more successful than the opening movement, and faded away nicely and tantalisingly at the end. In the second and third some nice effects were employed, bringing Lortie to his feet to reach into the piano to strike the hammers directly.

Overall, though, the second half was more compelling (partly because Schumann isn't among my favourite composers of solo piano music). It began with Carter's Night Fantasies, an extended single movement work, episodic in nature. This turned out to be one of Carter's works that has impressed me most this year. There was a good flow between each section and it never felt disjointed. There was too plenty of fine weighty playing from Lortie.

The best, however, was saved to last (or nearly so), with Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. His playing was exceptional as he brought out the shimmering opening and sliding glissandos of the first movement and also the powerful climaxes with equal skill. So too the haunting delicacy of the second movement and the tolling of the distant bells. Unfortunately, and this is Ravel's fault rather than Lortie's, there is nothing in the finale, nicely played though it was, that quite lives up to what has come before. Still, it contained some nice climaxes and the quiet ending was brought off well.

It was just a shame that more people weren't there to appreciate it.

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