It can be difficult in August, with both the Edinburgh International Festival and the BBC Proms in full swing, to notice that other festivals are available. Fortunately my parents live in Suffolk and drew my attention to the Snape Proms. In this series one concert stood out: Louis Lortie performing Liszt's complete Annees de Pelerinage. I have always found Liszt intriguing when I've heard his work, but he isn't very frequently performed in recital. Unfortunately I'd already pretty much committed myself to being in Edinburgh for most of August, but I decided to make a slightly mad trip down to Suffolk for two nights just for this concert. When it came to heading off on Wednesday I wondered if it was really worth doing. It turned out to be one of those extraordinary evenings of live performance where you just sit in total wonder.
Louis Lortie's performance was an utter tour de force. To perform this work complete (which I suspect even Liszt cannot have done since he had retired from live performance by the time he wrote the pieces in the Third Year) requires enormous stamina. This is about two hours and forty minutes of music that demands rock solid technique, poetic feeling for Liszt's various moods, real dynamic range (one hears such pianissimos against such triple fortes very very seldom brought off in performance) and a sense of shaping. There is nowhere for the performer to hide, and the end is just as demanding as the beginning. Lortie brought it off perfectly, whether quietly introspective or with fingers flying at unbelievable speed across the keyboard.
He also made a compelling case for Liszt the composer. I have read criticisms that much of Liszt's music is rather empty, virtuoso stuff. You do have to be a virtuoso to perform these pieces but there's so much more to them than that in mood, variety, and musical interest. Lortie also absolutely brought that across from the incredible demands of Orage in year one, to the strange haunted Angelus! Priere aux anges gardiens which opens year three. Is there another funeral march anywhere that sounds quite so biting and savage as the Marche Funebre? Particularly striking too was Lortie's performance of Canzonetta del Santa Rosa. This playful little interlude comes in the middle of the heavyweight movements of year two, and Lortie switched moods absolutely convincingly.
This was one of those evenings of live performance which it was a privilege to have attended. The only sad things were the empty seats at the Snape Maltings and the failure of the BBC to notice that this one-off concert was going on. I suspect, if they even looked at the listings in the planning department, they probably thought that as Lortie has recorded it there was no need to broadcast a live performance. But there is something about a live performance of something as technically challenging as this which the recorded CD, where numbers can be retaken, will not reflect. The BBC and those conservative members of the local classical music fraternity for whom even Liszt is a bridge too far missed a trick last night. This was a truly special evening.
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