JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Featured performer: Louis Lortie) - June 23, 2002 id="543337086">

CBC Symphony Hall

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D Minor buffet

Today’s broadcast was a heady overdose of a single tonal centre, whose performances, although just over a year apart, were produced from highly different ingredients.

Writing to his second publisher, Rieter-Biedermann (after being refused by Breitkopf & Härtel on the strength of criticism from both audience and musicians at the Leipzig première), Brahms said “I fear the ‘Concerto’ is a heavy undertaking. It is only for capable pianists of the modern German school who perhaps do not care for my compositions.” Louis Lortie, one of Canada’s finest soloists, agrees. “More than strong fingers and a big technique are required … A good relationship with the conductor is also necessary.”

Because of its depth, density and incubation period, the D Minor Piano Concerto remains one of the most difficult essays in the standard repertoire—its definitive recording has yet to be made although Wilhelm Backus and Emil Gilels have come close.

Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra music director Hans Graf chose an opening tempo that had the promise of grandeur but soon slipped into a plodding survey of a score that is rich with long, sustained lines, subtle harmonic excursions and an inner rhythmic tension that could only have come from the romantic period’s ablest composer.

From the tempo shift of Lortie’s first entrance, it was apparent that agreement had not been reached on the pulse. He was forced to lead from the bench, which was abundantly clear in this recording that placed the compelling resonance of the piano too far ahead of the orchestra thus further eroding the chance for greatness.

But Lortie’s vision suffered from more pull than push even when left on his own. For example, in the divine second subject, that leaves Brahms’ homage à Beethoven (i.e., the “Larghetto” from Symphony No. 2) in no doubt. His technique is secure, his tone colouring extraordinary, but, in this outing, Lortie’s ability to reveal the mystery, emotion and depth of this brooding masterpiece was strangely absent.

Note to the first violins: there is no violin section in the world that doesn’t have some moments of unwritten pain when working in the upper reaches; however, even given the limited rehearsal hours prescribed by modern musical economics, there must be more time spent behind the woodshed (individually and collectively). The frequent miss hits have come to be expected rather than forgiven. Accuracy of pitch should become a standard—not a value-added extra.

If Brahms succeeds when a feeling of inevitability is produced and maintained, then Bruckner comes off the page only when his relentless, directed drive has been fathomed.

Graf is to be commended for this February 2001 performance of the Ninth Symphony, which challenged everyone involved:

  • The recording engineer did a magnificent job of leaving the balancing nuances to the musicians and conductor (although the “very present” frog “rattle” of the successive G-string down-bows was, perhaps, too realistic.).
  • The players responded well to this embouchure-challenging, right-hand-draining endurance test; but only regular “long blows” will toughen up the orchestra to the point of being able to fully concentrate and shape Bruckner’s thoughts, which do have heavenly lengths, rather than just get through.
  • The audience was commendably attentive with far less coughs-per-square-bar than in the Brahms and virtually none at the most poignant moments.
  • Even though the outer movements never did quite coalesce, Graf convincingly demonstrated in the Scherzo that with a regular diet of big-limbed works, the CPO could achieve a measure of success that would normally require a Solti, Klemperer or Bernstein to achieve. JWR

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Conductor - Hans Graf
Featured performer - Louis Lortie
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15 - Johannes Brahms
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor - Anton Bruckner
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