Louis Lortie: Chopin - Etudes

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Over twenty years have passed since Louis Lortie last recorded Chopin's études. Plushmusic and Chandos were there when he revisited them.


"Lortie is one of perhaps half a dozen pianists who is worth dropping everything to go and hear." Daily Telegraph, 2008

Includes HD Video & Audio files, and 24 bit audio

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Filmed 20-22 September 2009 at the Britten Studio, Aldeburgh

Frédéric Chopin
12 Etudes: Op.10 (27:32)
12 Etudes: Op.25 (30:56)
3 Nouvelles Etudes, Op.posth. (5:51)

HD Video and Audio – 1 hour 4 minutes

Cameras: Tom Patterson, Sam Edmonds
Audio engineer: Peter Newble
Directed and edited by Björn Ventris
Executive producer for Plushmusic: Lyndon Jones
Producer: Matthew Jolly

Plushmusic would like to thank production partners Chandos, and Aldeburgh Music for their magnificent studio and Jaques Samuel Pianos, London for their Fazioli 2781554.

Born in Montreal, Louis Lortie made his debut with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the age of thirteen and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra three years later. Soon after he performed an historic tour of the People's Republic of China and Japan. He keeps a home in his native Quebec, but these days he's based primarily in Berlin. He recorded the études for Plushmusic in his fiftieth year: 'One of the things about turning 50 is that you realise that you have to devote time to the things that matter to you. There is a lot of virtuoso repertoire – say the Saint-Saëns piano concertos – that I used to enjoy working at, but now I prefer to focus on music that I find more deeply satisfying.'

'I try always to take a naive attitude towards a recording session like this,' says the celebrated French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. 'I could feel some kind of weight on my shoulders but it was only as I sat down to play that I realised, returning to Chopin's études was a big, big challenge.'

Lortie first recorded Chopin's études for Chandos more than 20 years ago. Since then he's enjoyed an exceptionally rich performing and recording career. He won first prize in the Busoni Competition in 1984. He was a prize-winner at the Leeds Competition. He's been named an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a Knight of the National Order of Quebec – and he's made over 30 recordings on the Chandos label, exploring a repertoire that extends from the 18th to the 21st century; from all of Mozart's piano concertos to the music of Thomas Adès.

No part of it poses pose quite the level of technical and poetical challenge set by Chopin's études, and yet, as this recording was being made, Lortie was preparing to tour all 27 of them to Vienna, Warsaw, Bilbao, Valencia and to Italy and the USA: a feat described by a wag at the Washington Post as 'equivalent in its physical demands and terrifying exposure to running a marathon and posing for a Vanity Fair cover shoot on the same day'.

Still, Lortie approached the recording with equanimity. The setting helped. Aldeburgh Music very generously offered us their brand-new Britten Studio. Cobbled together from a kiln, a dovecote and a ruined granary, this 340-seat haven of golden wood, old brick and concrete boasted an acoustic ideally suited to Louis Lortie's approach on the exceptionally sensitive and balanced Fazioli piano. The engineer helped: it turned out that Chandos's Peter Newble has known Lortie for years. When push came to shove, though, it was up to Lortie to help himself: 'I'm fortunate in that I learned the études early in my life. The built-in technique that I acquired from them is something to be treasured.'

Fryderyk Chopin, born 1810, never had the physical strength to become a recitalist in the modern sense of the word. Liszt and the younger Beethoven were quite happy playing for two or three hours at a time before a knowledgeable and critical audience. Chopin's health was so frail, he was constantly having to deny rumours of his own death. Needless to say, he had to find some other way to be extraordinary: he become inimitable. 'Of course, the best compliment a pianist could ever get is "I thought Chopin was playing",' says Lortie. 'But one has to be realistic. Liszt himself said, I can imitate anyone, but Chopin – that is impossible.'

Lortie's technical surety gives him the confidence not to prejudge the changes 20 years have wrought on his style. 'I would rather trust that the interval has given me a conscience, regarding style. When you're young you're playing so much repertoire that you confuse everything a little bit: your Brahms has a little bit of Chopin in it, and your Schumann has a little bit of Beethoven. If I've been doing my job, what I play now should be fresher, purer.

The études were an innovation waiting to happen, of course: 'The whole idea of the etude developed from the fact that the piano we know today was a relatively new invention, and more and more of the bourgeoisie were learning to play the instrument. Besides, it was a good way for composers to earn a bit of money. Of course Chopin, being Chopin, wasn't content with mere technical exercises. He was developing his artistic personality at the same time.

Lortie recognises the challenge the études set a body in constant transition. 'Chopin started writing them around 18, 19 years of age, and finished them in his early twenties. Keeping them fresh is a challenge, of course, but that's only the beginning. The études confront you with the way your own body is changing and evolving. And, yes, you have to confront your own decay.

'Chopin is an artist in an all-embracing sense,' Lortie explains. 'He's one of the few genuine colourists in music. With his particular combination of immediacy and vulnerability he can be very elusive, and he's an exceptionally difficult composer to record. He gets you to sing in the bel canto manner, inspired by the operas of Bellini, but his love of Bach's and Mozart's counterpoint means you have always to be aware of the possibilities for polyphony. And all that's before you consider his harmonic explorations, which pull his music into the era of high Romanticism.'

How, then, to play Chopin's études to a packed concert hall – pieces that were intended primarily for home study? Restraint is hardly the first word that springs to mind when listening to Lortie's recital of Chopin's études. And in front of audiences that are sometimes 3,000 strong, Lortie cannot afford to be tentative. The point he's making is rather different: that each étude has a built-in personality – an architecture that a self-absorbed performer can miss. 'Chopin did not have the means that Liszt had to explode his personality all over a performance. The études, I think, were his response to that.' So, whatever the circumstances, whatever the temptations, Lortie factors in 'a certain amount of introversion'.