Canadian pianist Louis Lortie. (Élias-photographies,…)
The popular image of Franz Liszt is a demonic, wild-haired virtuoso, constantly on tour, playing an endless number of marathon shows in which women swooned and fought for his stray gloves.
That image isn't new: Caricaturists in Liszt's day sometimes drew smoke coming off the piano as if the speed and force of his playing had led the instrument to spontaneously combust. He would sometimes break the wood-framed pianos he played.
But this vision of Liszt as classical music's answer to Jimi Hendrix at his guitar-burning wildest doesn't tell the whole story of the man or his music, says Louis Lortie.
"A lot of people say he was an empty composer, with all those pyrotechnics," says Lortie, a Canadian pianist based in Berlin. "But by the end of his life, he was writing pieces that were very atonal and spare. And 20 years before that, he'd turned to religion" and developed a contemplative style very different from the rapid runs of octaves and scales in his early work.
"The path of his talent was not as clear-cut as other composers' — Chopin or Beethoven," Lortie says. "It was a different kind of genius, of the kind you see in the 20th century, an experimentalist." This led, he says, to bursts of genius as well as many unfinished and imperfect pieces.
Lortie is on a mission this year — the 200th anniversary of Liszt's birth — to show just how multifaceted the composer's career was. And he's hoping to do it with a single work — albeit a very long and complex one — which he'll perform in full Sunday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts under the auspices of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.
"It's bloody difficult," Dean Corey, director of the Philharmonic Society, says of "Années de Pèlerinage," which will be performed with a break for dinner. Corey got the idea from England's Glyndebourne Opera, which sometimes breaks long opera up into a pre- and post-dinner session.
"It'll be a fun experiment," Corey says. "We'll see how it goes."
His life in music
"Années de Pèlerinage," or Years of Pilgrimage, is actually three volumes of lyrical miniatures, written between the 1830s and the 1870s. Some are reasonably well-known — one elegant, reflective piece inspired by Pertrarch's 104th sonnet, for instance, is canonical — but the work as a whole is so long (generally nearly three hours) and demanding it's very rarely performed all at once.
The "Années" are among the most autobiographical pieces in Liszt's body of work. The pianist was in his 20s when he fell for Countess Marie d'Agoult, who had, inconveniently, a husband and children at the time. The pianist and countess left Paris to tour Switzerland and Italy — during which time they had three children of their own — and soon after, the composer sat down to record his travels.
"I have latterly travelled through many new countries, have seen many places, and visited many a spot hallowed by history and poetry," he wrote at the time. "I have tried to give musical utterance to some of my strongest sensations, some of my liveliest impressions."
But these musical memories were transformed over time. "It was only after he had given up his life of vagabondage, and settled in Weimar, that he had the leisure to go over everything again," says Alan Walker, author of the acclaimed three-volume biography of the composer.
"As he gazed on his past, so to speak, he came to realize that these 'snapshots' represented much more than a simple travelogue. They were nothing less than a pilgrimage along the path of life," Walker says. And they became, as he transformed them, "the diary that he never wrote. Whether Liszt is contemplating a painting by Raphael, reading a Petrarch sonnet, listening to the fountains of the Villa d'Este, or simply sitting by a mountain stream in Switzerland, he captures the experience in music."
The individual pieces range as widely as those incidents suggest, which is what makes them both compelling listening and a challenge for a pianist.
"It can be very intimate, but also very orchestral," Lortie says. "It really pushes the instrument. All these difficult moments come out of nowhere — you're playing something ethereal and very, very soft, and then you get something very physical. It requires a different kind of concentration."
That different kind of concentration is part of what makes the "Années" so taxing, and so infrequently performed. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for instance, has hosted pianists who render various pieces and even whole books of the cycle but has no record of putting on the entire work.
Lortie has never performed all three books live but figured the time was now. (And thanks to Corey's enthusiasm, Orange County got the first booking for a tour that will allow him to play the work, in various arrangements, about 15 times this year.)