By Lee Hartman, KCMetropolis.com
Take opera’s most overwrought composer—Richard Wagner—and filter his music through the showman’s lens of Hugo Wolf, Josef Rubinstein, and Franz Liszt, whose music in some circles may also be considered gilded to the extreme. Surprisingly instead of a wash of chordophonic clamoring, Wagner is reimagined, clarified, invigorated, fresh—even for the twenty-first century.
Such was the impetus behind Canadian pianist Louis Lortie’s Friday night recital for the Friends of Chamber Music at the Folly Theater. Robert Schumann’s Papillons was not out of place in this setting because throughout the piece, the composer conjures many musical characters. Through the waltzes and polonaises, Lortie’s face was that of a character actor expressing humorous motives, dour phrases, wistful rhythms, and merry harmonies. His face complemented his fine playing. Though some pacing at the later cadences seemed awkward, the overall reading was splendid.
The crux of the program spread over the rest of the evening. First was Wolf’s take on Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” from Die Walküre. I have never found the wonder in this excerpt; it becomes far too twee for such a momentous event in the opera. That being said, Wolf’s transcription is more akin to a piano reduction and it works as a show piece. The carillon section (the famous glockenspiel excerpt in the orchestral original) works well, maybe even better, in this format. Though faithful to the original and adroitly played, it was something of a nonstarter.
For a piece completely adulterous to the original was Liszt’s transformation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Réminiscences de Don Juan. It was pure piano fireworks which Lortie attacked with a fervor appropriate for that lascivious lover. Lortie’s heavy-yet-deft, passionate playing even threw the piano out of tune! More important however was his ability to highlight Mozart’s Classical themes through Liszt’s Romantic throbbings. Strains of “Lá ci darem la mano” and “Finch’ha dal vino” served Liszt as kernels worthy of exploration, and Lortie navigated all aspects with shocking ease. The audience chuckled as these familiar tunes wafted through the hall and at Lortie’s Looney Tunes-like panache.
Josef Rubinstein’s transcription of Siegfried Idyll was the standout of the program, not because it was the most bombastic—far from it—but because Lortie, as an artist, had the most to say with this work. His interpretation was apropos as this was one of Wagner’s most intimate pieces dedicated to his wife Cosima (Liszt’s eldest illegitimate daughter by Marie d’Agoult) and their son Siegfried. Under Lortie’s hands, horns were heard and muted strings tremoloed delicately through his sensitive touch and timbral mastery of the keyboard. It was sublime and one of the most affecting solo piano performances I have experienced in recent memory.
Two transcriptions by Liszt of Wagner’s Tannhäuser followed. Building off the preceding Seigfried Idyll, the Recitative and Air “O du mein holder Abendstern” was of a similarly contemplative mood which transitioned beautifully into the Overture from Tannhäuser. The Overture is Wagner at his most tuneful. Lortie was able to recall the great tuba solos and solemn brass chords with his playing. Of course, as an encore, Lortie offered Wagner’s other great overture, the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. His mastery of the leitmotivs was commendable as he was without Wagner’s orchestral palette to assist in their audibility. This performance, unlike Wagner operas, was over far too soon.