Louis Lortie: In paradisum

photo: Elias.photography

Showcasing an inspiring recent piano recording.

Of all the truly seminal composers in the evolution of the piano repertoire, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) remains one of the less performed, his significance little understood, his extraordinary music too easily overlooked.

How welcome then In paradisum, the second instalment in French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie’s Chandos series A Fauré Recital which began with the excellent Après un rêve (available here) back in 2016, and which we must hope will develop into a complete cycle of this, arguably Fauré’s most important body of music.

Whether you are already an enthusiast for this music or a newcomer to it, Lortie’s winning way with Fauré’s idiom will enchant and enliven your appreciation of this wonderful repertoire, so let’s take the disc for a spin…

A Fauré Recital…

Whereas Lortie’s first sortie into this repertoire mixed an enticing programme of Fauré’s solo repertoire with transcriptions of other well known gems (the famous Pavane, Après un rêve and the suite from Pelléas et Mélisande), this second recital focuses primarily on delivering a varied selection of the composer’s core solo works, with music from every stage of his long career, including pieces spanning nearly half a century.

  • Pie Jesu from Requiem, Op.48 (1887-8) (trans. Lortie)
  • Barcarolle No.12, Op.106 bis (1915)
  • Nocturne No.11, Op.104/1 (1913)
  • Ballade, Op.19 (1877-9)
  • Nocturne No.7, Op.74 (1898)
  • Thème et variations, Op.73 (1895)
  • Barcarolle No.1, Op.26 (?1881)
  • Barcarolle No.10, Op.104/2 (1913)
  • Nocturne No.10, Op.99 (1908)
  • Nocturne No.13, Op.119 (1921)
  • In paradisum from Requiem

Two of these works, the Ballade and Thème et variations, are larger in scale than the rest, so providing focal points within the overall programme.

The Ballade Op.19 was conceived for piano and orchestra, happily also existing as a solo piano concert work. Presented with this work for comment, Liszt famously exclaimed “I’ve run out of fingers!” when he attempted to play it at sight. The difficulty is not of the flashy variety beloved by Romantic virtuosi, but a more sober and at times knottily textured complexity. If Lortie’s performance sparkles with ease here, it is testament to his supreme mastery of its defiant challenges.

The Thème et variations knowingly channels Schumann’s Études Symphoniques, not only written in the same key of C sharp minor but equally evoking the sombre mood of its clear model. Here again Lortie makes somewhat light of the technical demands of the work, bringing to the overall narrative both a lightness of touch where needed and an exquisite sense of pathos.

Contrasting with these dramas, Lortie selects from the rich trove of Fauré’s insouciantly charming Barcarolle’s, a form to which the composer periodically returned throughout his life.

Here it is easy to see Fauré’s evolution writ large, the seeming naivety of the relatively early first Barcarolle and the denser, later pieces of 1913 and 1915, far more melancholy and at times dramatic works which leave Mendelssohn’s and Chopin’s famous models far behind.

The Nocturnes were similarly written over many years, but for this recital Lortie concentrates on the later works, including the B minor Nocturne of 1921, Fauré’s final solo piano composition. These pieces owe more to Chopin, but move towards an altogether darker night of the soul.

The 10th and 13th Nocturnes, intensely powerful works, embrace a chromaticism that at times strains towards the very boundaries of tonality without ever eschewing the delicious Gallic colour and harmonic language with which we associate the composer.

The recital’s brilliant mixture of solo works is bookended with two small transcriptions, made by Lortie himself, of popular movements from the beloved Requiem Op.48.

The simplicity and melodic immediacy of the lovely Pie Jesu proves to be the perfect overture, while the spiritual poise and peace of the valedictory In paradisum provides serene closure. Given the emotionally turbulent journey of the programme as a whole, their inclusion is utterly inspired, a gorgeous crowning joy of this superb recording.

The Performance

My first encounter with many of these pieces was through the classic 1970’s recordings of Jean-Philippe Collard (now reissued as a budget box by Brilliant Classics, available here). Very fine though those performance are, it seems to me that Lortie is raising the bar with his series, and is now a strong front-runner in this repertoire.

Louis Lortie’s rich discography includes superb recordings of Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven and Schumann as well as Fauré’s teacher and friend Saint-Saëns and younger compatriots Poulenc, D’Indy and Ravel. But Fauré clearly has a central place in Lortie’s musical psyche, and he brings a seemingly solid authority to the music that few have achieved.

This is perhaps most evident in his profound sense of flow; Fauré’s music benefits here from a subtle but masterful sense of rubato that brings a refined sense of phrasing and shape without ever becoming too indulgent or blatantly conspicuous. Lortie achieves perfection!

Equally adept, there is a command of texture and inner voicing in Lortie’s interpretation that I have sometimes found lacking elsewhere. While never lacking in Gallic melodic character or harmonic eroticism, Fauré’s music was ever-cosmopolitan, and in the thicker textures and counter melodies owes more than a little to Beethoven and Schumann; Lortie succeeds in shining a clear light on the most scintillating of inner lines.

The Recording

The recording was made on a Fazioli Model F 278 provided by Jacques Samuel Pianos, London, and took place at Potton Hall, Dunqich, Suffolk in October 2019.

Producer Jonathan Cooper was joined by assistant engineer Alex James; they must be congratulated for producing a recording which highlights the rich timbre of the Fazioli while leaving plenty of space for dynamic content.

The 32-page booklet includes an outstanding article covering the background and content of the repertoire, written by the eminent Roger Nichols.

It remains to say that every aspect of the Chandos CD oozes quality, a reminder of why in an age of streaming, purchasing a physical copy is still such a wonderful and enriching thing to do!

This is a wonderful recording, and let’s hope it brings this fabulous repertoire to a much wider audience.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

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