A whole night of foreplay

April 14, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The first of this year’s International Pianists in Recital series held in Sydney’s City Recital Hall last night presented French Canadian pianist Louis Lortie playing no less than 57 preludes spread over three composers, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Louis Lorte

Louis Lortie

Bach is generally credited with having established preludes as a separate keyboard form in his astonishing output of 48 with their accompanying fugues.

But much later, after Liszt had anointed the solo piano recital as a stand alone concert, pianists were still in the habit of siting down to make friends with the piano by strumming few a random notes and contemplative chord or two before launching into the program proper.

Nowadays, the prelude is accepted as a legitimate expression of one or two musical ideas, usually of brief duration, but collectively offering far more variety than longer forms. Many preludes seem to be begging for development companions and leave us wanting more – which probably adds to their attraction.

Nonetheless, it is unusual for a whole piano recital to be confined to preludes. Louis Lortie played nine preludes (Opus 103) by Faure, and 24 each from Scriabin (Opus 11) and Chopin (Opus 28) in what seemed to be a brave piece of programming. Not everybody wants to saddle up to a plethora of preludes although, for me, it was no hardship.

The Faure group, which opened the program, showed the prelude in a simpler form than the Scriabin and Chopin. We might have irreverently nicknamed Faure’s Opus 103 as the preludes to the preludes. It also provided a low risk entry point for Lortie to prepare for later pyrotechnics.

Lortie played them with assurance and accuracy, although their technical demands were not great and neither was their impact. Most of the action took place in the middle of the keyboard where we could be distracted to dwell on what the ageing Faure was thinking, or simply let time and pleasant sounds slip by.

The 24 Scriabin preludes arrived like cinema curtains opening. Lortie flew at them, demonstrating one of the most agile and percussive left hands in the business. Typically Russian and passionate, these preludes suited Lortie’s big technique, but maybe it was a little too big when it came to passages of pianissimo or dewdrops on a spider’s web.

I got the feeling that most of the audience had come to hear the 24 Chopin preludes, which contain more familiar music. I too thought this would be the highlight of the concert but, in the end, it didn’t measure up to the Scriabin. There were some sublime moments and again Lortie’s remarkable left hand stood out as did his superb chromatic thirds in the final prelude but more often than not the delicate passages were overstated. The colour that I had anticipated did not materialise and there were some anxious moments – such as in the number eight when the speeding train derailed momentarily.


Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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