PERFORMER: Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10616
Louis Lortie’s Beethoven cycle has been nearly two decades in the making: 14 sonatas (plus the four-hand sonata Op. 6 with Hélène Mercier) were recorded in 1991-94, and ten more were set down in a four-day span in 1998; but it was not until 2009-10 that the pianist finally turned to the eight remaining works. As with any complete set of these diverse pieces, the results are necessarily variable; different facets of Lortie’s style emerge depending on the recording dates and works in question.
A good many of the 1998 recordings (Sonatas Nos 11-20) display Lortie at his most idealistically fastidious, with extremely clean and subtle articulation (frequently aided by sparing use of the sustaining pedal), fearsomely dry staccatos, and an uncommonly wide dynamic range featuring everything from feathery pianissimos to fortissimo accents that resemble pistol shots.
Hovering over such playing is a sense of calculated control that can prevent expression from feeling direct and natural; the last two movements of Op. 22 and the fast movements of Op. 27 No. 1 contain prime examples of such aloofness.
But certain earlier recordings show a more urgent and expressively engaged style (Op. 7 and Op. 10 No. 1), the last three sonatas (from 2010) show Lortie to have cultivated patient, mellow suppleness to good effect (although such playing lessens the dramatic depth of these pieces), and popular, nicknamed sonatas – the Pathétique, Waldstein, and Appassionata in particular – contain satisfying lyrical flexibility.
In general, Lortie seems less interested in metaphysical profundity than in textural stylishness; spending enough time with this set to grasp Lortie’s aims and insights is nevertheless genuinely rewarding, even though most listeners will ultimately prefer the cycles of Goode, Kovacevich, or Lewis (to speak only of living pianists).
Chandos’s recorded sound is generally bright and clear, although the five sonatas stemming from 2009 (Nos 22-25 and 27) employ a piano that is comparatively muffled, raspy, and unevenly voiced – the lyrical beauty of Op. 78 in particular suffers as a consequence. David Breckbill