Feature Article - "The Art of Pianist Louis Lortie" - October, 2001

Jason Serinus



Born in 1959 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie gave his first public performance at age 13, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Montreal Symphony. He has been known for his Beethoven ever since.

At age 16, Lortie won the first prize in both the Canadian Music Competition and the CBC Competition. Nine years later, he won First Prize in the Busoni International Piano Competition and Fourth Prize in the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition.

Lortie made his first recording of Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 12 and 14 for Chandos in 1986, thus initiating his long-term relationship with label. His Chandos recording of Beethoven's Eroica Variations; Six Variations, Op. 34; 2 Rondos, Op. 51; and Für Elise won Holland's Edison Prize in 1991. BBC Magazine called his 1994 recording of Beethoven's Sonatas 1-3 one of the "Best CDs of the Year." With six of a total of eight CDs in his complete Beethoven Sonata cycle already released, he is currently recording the remaining sonatas.

In 1997-1998, Lortie performed his first complete Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle at Toronto's Ford Center and Berlin's Philharmonie. A Beethoven cycle in London's Wigmore Hall followed shortly thereafter.

After completing his year 2001 Beethoven Sonata cycle in Milan's Conservatorio, Lortie became the featured artist in Montreal's Beethoven Plus chamber music festival. From October 1 through November 1, 2001, Lortie played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas; his 10 sonatas for violin and piano; five sonatas for cello and piano; and six trios for piano, violin, and cello with violinist James Ehnes and cellist Jan Vogler.

During the same time period, Lortie completed a second Beethoven Festival with the Montreal Symphony. There he played and conducted all the Beethoven Piano Concerti, conducted Beethoven Symphony No. 1, and joined cellist Amanda Forsythe and violinist Pinchas Zukerman in Beethoven's Triple Concerto.

Louis Lortie performs far more than Beethoven. This past spring, he gave a recital in New York of works by Bach and Kurtag. In Toronto's famed Glenn Gould studio, he recently completed a series of three concerts devoted to the keyboard, chamber and vocal music of 19th-century German-Romantic composers Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. In 2002, he turns to Mozart, playing all of Mozart's Piano Concertos with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony.

Louis is also a fervent devotee of the music of Franz Liszt. He has recorded three volumes of Liszt's works for piano and orchestra with the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague. Volume 2 was released April 24, 2001, with Volume 3 due out in February 2002.

Shortly before his October 19, 2001 all-Beethoven recital at Oakland, California's Mills College, I spoke with Lortie by phone. Here is what we shared:

Discovering the Beethoven Sonatas

Jason: If someone were to drawn to explore the Beethoven sonatas for the first time after encountering this interview, what do you think entering into the world of Beethoven might mean to them?

Louis Lortie: You might have to put a little effort into listening to it, but afterwards they will lift you up. I'm not talking about my own performance; I don't want to be pretentious here. But certainly, if I'm doing my job well, the music should do that.

Let me explain what I mean about "a little effort." Too much these days is about enjoying the evening, relaxing, or entertaining oneself. Great artists like Beethoven ask people to somehow sit at the edge of their seat. There is a strength of concentration in Beethoven's compositions. I hope the intensity that I carry to the music that evening will take them to such a place; that's always my aim in a concert, to grab people immediately, from the start.

This is why the structure of a program is important. I believe that an intermission is a mistake. It's maybe good if people are going to walk outside humming the themes, but not if they go the bar to have a drink and talk about their new credit card. It's absolutely silly. That's why we need to rethink why we have concerts and how to do them. Let's not just have people who come from work and go to a concert like they would sit in front of the TV. It's not the same thing.

It's not a workaday phenomenon. It's something special.


Bay Area Performances

There are so many places to perform in the Bay Area. What brings you to Mills College?

I perform regularly with the San Francisco Symphony and on the San Francisco Performances recital series; I occasionally perform other places in the Bay Area, such as universities. As someone who doesn't reside there, I tend to forget exactly where I performed 12 or 14 years ago.

There are so many venues in the Bay Area. So many are closing, so many are opening, it's very difficult for me to keep up with. It's also an unknown geography for me; I don't even know which airport is closest.

The plain truth is, I don't know Mills College at all. My management does the bookings. I always trust my management to put me in a series where there is a decent piano and a good public. For me, that plus whether my program fits are the important things.

When did you last perform in the Bay Area?

Last year, I played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major, K. 415 with the SF Symphony and Donald Runnicles. It was around the same time as Runnicles conducted the premier of Jack Heggie's Dead Man Walking with San Francisco Opera. No. 13 is a very operatic concerto. It has flourishing cadenzas in the last movement, which also has a couple of unexpected adagios inserted in it. The last movement is quite a lovely rondo.

My recital with San Francisco Performances was probably the year before, when I played the Chopin Preludes.

I played in a splendid northern California setting last year, the Montalvo Villa. People may know the name, but they would have never found out there was a concert there. The series doesn't advertise in any of the papers. They have a very small hall, that holds 300 people maximum, but they had no one there.

Mills is a women's school that has a famed New Music and Electronic Music program. Terry Riley used to be on staff, as was Pauline Oliveros. Current faculty includes Maggie Payne, Julie Steinberg and David Abel. Mills has graduated a huge number of cutting edge composers. But I don't know what your audience will be like. The school is not centrally located.

I'm never really insulted. I just find it bad for the classical music industry if there's no audience. The presenters complain that the papers don't talk about classical music, but it's a shame if they can't get their act together to publicize the concerts.

The State of Classical Music

You perform all over the world. We have a situation in the United States where people have somehow decided that classical music is for old people, the audience is graying, classical music is dying, it's not hip, it's not where it's at or what people want... Are you encountering this attitude in Canada and Europe?

People think classical music can survive simply by maintaining the old traditions. Organizations rely on so much on regular Tuesday and Wednesday night subscription series where people will come automatically. It's a very traditional milieu, and they expect people to go on like this. But it just doesn't work like this anymore. They have to create something interesting.

People like to go to festivals. They like to go to small festivals, single events, or single weeks they want to attend. They don't want to decide two years in advance to get a subscription.

I think this is a trend all over the world. It's not a bad thing. Performers like to have a live audience that's really interested in coming to this concert, rather than people who are sitting there because they always sit there the same day of the week. Of course, it's now more difficult to get people. Maybe it's important not to present the same orchestra with the same conductor so often.

Concert promoters are at least trying to get a lot more contact between the artist and the audience. For example, they sponsor pre-concert events. I don't remember doing one in San Francisco; maybe you don't need them. But a lot of places ask the artist to go onstage before playing, talk about the piece, give examples at the piano, answer the audience's questions.

I find that very interesting. It forces you to be more articulate. It also presents a problem for a lot of performers who are hopelessly unable to talk about themselves and what they're doing.

Last year, I went to a wonderful pre-concert lecture with Andrew Manze at Cal Performances. It was quite enthralling. Right now, San Francisco Performances is sponsoring the Alexander String Quartet doing the Shostakovich quartets. Robert Greenberg lectures before the performance of each quartet, with the quartet playing examples.

I think that's marvelous. Things like that have to be tried. And the artists themselves need to be far more involved in the programs.

Conductors and Soloists

I hope we will soon be past the time when management books any artist with any conductor without any link between these people. That's the problem. People go to concerts, and they see a conductor and artist who have probably never met before. Maybe they couldn't care less about playing together, because they have different musical approaches.

Most conductors don't even give the soloist ten minutes to meet before the performance; sometimes you're luck if you even get ten minutes. It's a very strange attitude, very traditional, very stale, and often very uninteresting. All of this has to change.

What does that mean for you if you do a piano concerto and you and the conductor have very different ideas?

It's interesting if we can discuss this. Maybe it can be very productive. Maybe we can produce an interesting performance - even an interesting confrontation is possible.

As with Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould in the famous performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1?

At least something interesting happened there. As a matter of fact, years after, when Bernstein recorded the piece with Krystian Zimerman, he forced Zimerman to play even slower tempos than Gould insisted upon. People evolve, people change their minds. Maybe Bernstein and Gould were tired of each other, and the tempo thing was sort of an excuse. There are many extras that have to be analyzed.

Have you had these difficulties with some conductors?

Of course, because we're booked with people with whom we don't necessarily have something in common. It's too much of a business sometimes.

I wish the orchestras would discuss things directly. When you do an opera, you have to have people who can work together, because they have to work together for weeks. If the people staging are not getting along with some of the singers and the conductor, it can be a disaster. It's got to be planned and thought of. Too much of the industry is about, "The Tuesday night series has to have a concerto in it. Let's just put this big name with this other big name and that's it." It doesn't always work well that way.

Have you done much outreach to children and young people?

I don't do much of this. You need a special gift to talk to very young children. I do it once in awhile, but I think the best people who can do it are the teachers. And it can be very dangerous, because children can be turned off very quickly.

I'm thinking specifically the Lincoln Center Institute, an absolutely thrilling program for children in which works of art become real for them.

The Essence of Beethoven

Let's talk about the Beethoven you're performing. I was just listening to your recording of Beethoven Sonatas Op. 31, No. 1 and 2 [Chandos CHAN 9842, paired with Op. 31 No. 3], both of which you'll perform at Mills College. What does this music say to you? What is it about to you? Why are you drawn to it?

The incredible thing about Beethoven is that you can hum HIS motives all your life - they work on you on such a basic level. It's fascinating. It stays inside of you, and it seems to be evolving almost as if you would catch a virus;' you can't get rid of it. It's really inside of you.

Beethoven's music comes back very quickly if you haven't played it for awhile. You lose a lot of music if you haven't played it for ten or twelve years. But Beethoven seems to be music that just sticks with you. At least with me it's like that. I tend not to forget a lot of this music, and it comes back. If I forget a Sonata, I just have to read it and it's back.

There's an urgency in Beethoven's music which is absolutely incredible. I think it's the power of the will and concentration in the material. Nobody was ever so concentrated as Beethoven in his use of music and his way of reducing things to the essentials. The famous themes of Beethoven, the fate motives -- you can always take a part of those themes and distill them to a four-note motive or five-note pattern.

The way Beethoven uses these small cells in all of his works and makes a whole world out of them seems so basic; yet he was the first one to discover how to use this to a greater extent, how to create all these psychological changes from a motive. Nobody else had allowed themselves to do this before him.

Beethoven will use the same motive within a movement, but with dramatic changes of tempi or dynamics. Nobody ever did this before. Every composer would stay within a certain frame, a certain tempo, a certain psychological use of a motive. But with Beethoven it's incredible how much he allows himself.

I compare Beethoven's music to a virus because it's really like a little cell in the biological sense of the word. It spreads out and through you, as if the organism grows by itself in all sorts of directions.

It's as though he's operating on a very primal level, working with basic life force building blocks.


When you play, you must go through many cycles of emotion. Do you sometimes find that hard to contain, or can you cycle those feelings back into the music?

There are so many ways you can play Beethoven's music and play it "right." Sometimes you can have a certain idea about a certain piece, for example, the Appassionata Sonata. (The title wasn't even Beethoven's, but the music is very passionate). Passion can mean something different for you every day, depending on how you feel and what you're experiencing in life.

What's incredible is that the primary motives of the Appassionata can be played in so many different ways. If you listen, for example, to the recordings of great artists who were obsessed with this music - recordings that they made 30 or 40 years apart - they sound like they were played by different persons altogether. And you are a different person as you grow older. The earlier version is not necessarily closer to Beethoven than the later one. It's just different ways of experiencing his music.

This music is also very, very open. And it's very modern, because it allows a lot of interpretation, a lot of which can be correct and be justified.

You gave your first public performance at age 13, playing Beethoven. You've been performing before the public for 29 years. Do you have early recordings of the Beethoven, and have your interpretations changed a lot?

Of course. The things you perceive as a teenager are of course different. Certain composers are almost impossible to understand fully when you're young. Mozart and Bach you can hear teenagers play absolutely stunningly. But with Beethoven, perhaps because of this unleashing of so many radical changes, you can experience his music fully only a little later in life.

Late Beethoven

Let's talk about Op. 111, the final work on your Mills program.

What's interesting about the late Beethoven sonatas is that the composer, who had been experimenting with sonata form and motives all his life, seems at the end of his life to have gone back to an incredible simplicity. It's almost as though he was writing with a certain detachment.

It's very difficult to understand these later works, because he seems to have given up his usual way of writing. The motives do not go through so many stunning changes; they are more concentrated in their psychological transformations. It's as if he was already detached.

The later works are also less physical. The second movement of Op. 111 is probably one of the least physical works of Beethoven. A lot of it is in the higher registers, and really seems to be played by an instrument that would not even be a piano. It sounds very much like a xylophone sometimes, like something played on an ethereal instrument rather than an earthly one. It's quite puzzling that he would go that far.

And he was totally deaf by the time he wrote it. Only the Ninth Symphony, Op. 125 remained when he wrote the work; the other symphonies were composed way before.

Beethoven and Brahms

I remember reading an interview with Anne Sophie Mutter in which she contrasted Beethoven and Brahms. She said something like with Brahms, you always you know what he's feeling. You play it and you know it, because the meaning is all on the surface. With Beethoven, there are always deeper layers of meaning; there are always new discoveries, so it's always fresh. Do you share her experience of these composers?

I find Brahms just as puzzling, if not more so, as Beethoven. Brahms is as difficult to get deeper into. I'm very fond of both composers, but for totally different reasons.

I'm crazy about Brahms' sense of and obsession with history, his way of assimilating everything that was great in the composers before him. He was the first composer who was really obsessed with history. And of course that disturbed all the people around him, because when you're a modern composer, you're supposed to say that the past is the past. He was studying everything. He knew the complete works of the contemporaries he admired, such as Schumann and Beethoven, but he also know all of Palestrina.

The amount this man studied was amazing. He had a way of rewriting all of it. He was not quoting other composers; he was always reinterpreting the whole history of music.

Brahms was writing at a dead end time for composers. People were either reinventing the harmonic language, like Wagner or Liszt, or reassimilating the lessons of the past, such as the variation principle or the sonata form. The latter seemed impossible for most people, because their predecessors were such giants. But Brahms not only worked in those idioms, but took them farther and made something new out of them.

Career Development

Are you happy with the direction your career has taken?

I would like to have more control of with whom I'm working, especially with others musicians, and have more freedom. I envy people who present their own festivals. The project I currently have in Montreal, performing all the Beethoven Sonatas over a period of time, is very close to this kind of thing,

We all travel too much. We all do too many things too quickly. I like to take time to shape things with conductors, and build musical relationships. I think it's great when you can see conductors again and work on the repertoire. There are very few real associations between conductors and soloists that really last.

Which conductors have you really be simpatico with?

They're not necessarily famous. Conductors tend to become well known later in life, and I like to work with people from my own generation. Their egos are not fighting all the time, and they aren't thinking that they could be your father or whatever. This problem comes up a lot. So I tend to like to work conductors who are just starting to be known. They really take a different approach. We can take the time to sit down and take the time to go through a piece before we rehearse, and discuss various things.

Have you worked with Michael Tilson Thomas?

No, I haven't.

There are soloists he seems to love, like there were people that Lenny really loved.

This is great. What matters is the quality of the rapport.

Are there other Beethoven pianists you really admire?

Most of them are dead. Not so many people play a lot of him nowadays. You will find a hard time finding someone who plays all of Beethoven; people don't think it will sell. It's strange - I haven't had any problems with it, but it's what people think.

There are so many people I respect from the past. Of those still alive, certainly Daniel Barenboim is a great Beethoven player. In the past, there were so many greats. Wilhelm Kempf I've always found interesting. These two are the most influential for me.

Frankly, I don't have the time to listen to so many interpretations these days.

Final Thoughts

Thank you for taking so much time. I thought this interview would last 10 or 15 minutes. Most people want just snapshots. But you seem to be someone who likes to investigate so many aspects.

I'm a performer myself. The music I perform is in my blood the same way that Beethoven is in yours. So when I speak to a professional musician, I want to get a sense of how the music really touches them.

I have a feeling we just started. It's amazing, because you have gone in so many directions.

Matthias Goerne loved our interview together. He invited me to come to Los Angeles last spring to talk more. [See the interview with Matthias Goerne in the archives].

He is great. We were just talking about him today. One of the cellists I'm about to rehearse with is from Dresden. I told him they must have him in their Festival.

I would be on my knees to work with him. I heard him do Mahler's Songs of a Wayfarer in Berlin. It was the experience of a lifetime.


- Jason Serinus -


© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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