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Conjuring An Opera With Ten Fingers

By Fred Child | APM
Thursday, June 19, 2014

It's always been a treat to sit down with pianist Louis Lortie. In part because of his sound at the piano — the brightness, purity and clarity of his playing. But all the better to have a conversation with him, too. He is a sober, serious thinker, with an incisive point of view on every piece of music he chooses.

I was thrilled when he chose to play Franz Liszt's monumental piano arrangement of the final scene from the opera Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner for Performance Today. Knowing Lortie's dedication to thinking keenly about music, I wondered if he might base his approach on the dramatic events taking place at this fateful moment in the opera: Tristan and Isolde, truly-madly-deeply in love; Tristan dying in Isolde's arms; she is so overcome that she imagines he might be returning to life, when in fact she is going to join him in death.

"In the resonating sound," she sings, "in the wafting universe of the world's breath, drown, be engulfed, unconscious ... supreme delight!" It's heart-rending, and in true Wagnerian fashion, it's epic.

Lortie's take on this piece surprised me. For him, it's not so much about the narrative, it's about the actual sound he's producing on the piano. Wagner wrote this for full orchestra and soprano. Lortie is quick to point out the limitations of the piano: It only makes a sound when you hit a key, causing a hammer to hit a string, and then the sound can only get softer. How on Earth can you re-create the pulsing, throbbing ebb and flow of the trembling orchestral strings, the golden glow of the horns, the cascading crashes from the percussion section? Lortie talks about the "art of suggestion" on the piano, which can make it seem the "linear" piano is "producing curves."

And hearing him play it, his approach rings true. Just 30 seconds into his performance, there it is: his evocation of the trembling strings of the orchestra, quietly pulsing above the slowly unfolding melody. Liszt attempted to do the impossible with this piece, to bring the full color of a massive orchestra and a passionate soprano to life in the sound of a single piano. Lortie makes you believe in the impossible.

Set List:

  • Wagner/Liszt: "Liebestod" (from Tristan und Isolde)

Louis Lortie, piano

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