CHOPIN: 14 Waltzes; 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 “Funeral March”; 12 Etudes, Op. 10; 12 Etudes, Op. 25; Trois nouvelles etudes – Robert Lortat, piano – Doremi DHR-7994/5 (2 CDs), 72:40, 78:30 ****:
Robert Lortat (1885-1938) studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the class of Louis Diémer (1843-1919), gaining a premier prix in 1901 and eventually winning the Diémer Prize in 1906. His professional debut was made in Paris, the following year after which he toured Germany. He was one of the few pianists to program the ‘complete’ works of Chopin, which he played in Paris and London during 1911 and 1912. The series was not, in fact, the complete works, but it did include the études, ballades, préludes, scherzos, both mature sonatas and the impromptus, plus a large quantity of polonaises, mazurkas, and nocturnes. Among his most famous pupils is Vlado Perlemuter, who has subsequently passed the tradition on to Gwendolyn Mok. Lortat played duo recitals with Jacques Thibaud, but the chronic lung condition – Lortat’s havng suffered in a gas attack during WW I – eventually destroyed his health, and he died prematurely at fifty-three.
The set of 14 Waltzes (1931) – and all the shellacs are taken from French Columbia – opens with the Grande Valse brillante in E-flat Major, Op. 18, which reveals the pert articulation Lortat sports, his clean line, a rather rhythmically meandering left hand, and a fluent capacity for acceleration of tempo within the progress of the melodic arch. The breezy A-flat Major Waltz, Op. 34, No. 1 enjoys a verve and panache that transport us from the Paris salon into somewhere more ostentatious. Lortat injects his own personality into the A Minor Waltz, a sentimental but not garish rubato and a delicate poise. A symphonic sound opens the wildly improvisational reading of the F Major, Op. 34, No. 3; and this devil-may-care, subjectively willful reading may warrant the entire price of admission!
Lortat clearly competes with Josef Hofmann in the 2/4 Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 42, to see who perform the most notes most rapidly and still keep the melodic flow intact. Of the Op. 64 group, the “Minute” Waltz,” even at Lortat’s SST tempo still takes almost two minutes, but don’t say he doesn’t try. The ubiquitous C-sharp Minor rings with personality, eccentric but charming. The suave metrics of No. 8 in A-flat Major waft old-world incense and lyric nobility, an aristocratic reading worth of any rendition by Cortot or Casadesus. The melancholy pair of Op. 69 remain intimate, salon gestures, beautifully paced. The youthful Op. 70 group emanates a diaphanous glitter in the G-flat Major; a nostalgic wistfulness in the F Minor; and a leisurely weltschmerz in the D-flat Major. The final opus of the traditional set, the E Minor, returns to an unapologetic bravura style, rife with a volcanic pearly play.
The acoustic of the opening Prelude in C (1928) is rather dry, but the fluency is strong from Lortat; he immediately makes its contrast with the very soul of existential angst, the successive A Minor, quite evident. Lovely articulation in the G Major, though a bit heavy-fisted midway. More andante than Largo, the E Minor exudes a nervous lyricism, though Lortat slows down considerably before he crescendos. Canny pedaling in the D Major gives it a hazy luster. The B Minor, too, is not Lento assai, but it has sensitivity and grace, especially in the baritone register. The dark F-sharp Minor insinuates a grand passion in miniature, Lortat’s right hand cascades quite effective over a stormy bass. The E Major may be the most tragic of the preludes, what Gluck’s “Where is my Eurydice” is to Orfeo. Wonderful bass trill in the C-sharp Minor, twenty-five seconds of magic. Another whippoorwill in the B Major. A relentless passion machine, the G-sharp Minor Prelude indicates what Lortat might have brought to the B Minor Sonata, Op. 58. The two “nocturnes,” the F-sharp Major and D-flat Major, enjoy a serene breadth Lortat does not bestow often. The middle of the “Raindrop” Prelude sounds like Mussorgsky.
To call the B-flat Minor an “etude” from Lortat misses the heroism and blistering volatility of the performance. No prelude is more rife with harmonic nuance than the A-flat Major, whose affect remains impossible to categorize. Lortat makes the prelude a personal journey of lyric power in the face of a mortal storm. A bit of a smear in the opening bars of the E-flat Major does not ultimately detract from its cantabile character. After the last chord of the C Minor evaporates, the grand sonority of the B-flat Major rings out in the manner of a truncated ballade. The G Minor and F Major, appropriately, complement each other’s ferocious and docile sensibilities, leaving the demonic D Minor, which Lortat’s takes fast, although his long runs have nuance. Even in his glib moments, Lortat evokes a poetic capacity that bespeaks a real acolyte of the Chopin style.
The complete sets of Chopin Etudes (1931) extend my commentaries on Lortat’s supple ability to communicate the composer’s blend of technique and poetry. Of note, as Lortat approaches the ends of codas, we detect a slight ritardando for dramatic closure. His left hand, as in the A Minor, Op. 10, No. 2, can be heavy, and he does not care much whether the hands are always together. Sweet legato in the E Major, “Tristesse” Etude. Lortat can make Chopin sound like Debussy. The G-flat Major “Black Key” has great charisma, and he can play the final bars at tempo, a not inconsiderable feat. The syncopes of the C Major pose no problems for Lortat, whose soft patina in the face of his often thunderous bass is a real treasure. He makes the songful F Major, Op. 10, No. 8 a large work, blazing and dramatic. The feverish F Minor suggests what Lortat’s Liszt might have communicated. The wrist articulation from Lortat in the A-flat Major, Op. 10, No 10 astonishes, and his octaves rise potently, as they will again in the “Revolutionary” Etude and often in the Op. 25 set. Many place Josef Lhevinne on a pedestal in the E-flat Major, No. 11, but Lortat’s unique sway in this piece buys a ticket every time.
Gorgeous sonority marks the A-flat “Aoelian Harp” Etude, Op. 25, No. 1 by Lortat. Flexibility within a strict pulse, the secret of the F Minor, Op. 25, No. 2, is Lortat’s. The ensuing F Major, played marcato, has a new feel about it. The A Minor by Lortat becomes a ravishing scherzo that only suggests the thunder between the notes. The E Minor moves from choppy asymmetry to a troubadour’s song of refined beauty, and Lortat has it, though his bass chords, pesante, intrude slightly. Lortat’s colors in gossamer permeate the G-sharp Minor and the G-flat Major, the “Butterfly,” especially the last page. While listeners will gravitate to his two final selections of Op. 25, the “Winter Wind” – I think Lortat loses a bit of the thread here – and “Ocean” etudes, the Op. 25, No. 7 in C-sharp Minor, a real ballade in every sense, conveys Lortat’s eclectically illuminated personality in Chopin most effectively. The No. 10 in B Minor captures all the rebellious spirit of Romanticism, it glories and abysses, without any gilded epithets. The three late etudes for the publisher Fetis have their own allure with Lortat, wonderful intimacy and a sense of harmonic labyrinths in compressed heat. The playful D-flat moves glibly through choppy mazurka or polka rhythms. A subtle haze from Lortat hangs over the A-flat Major as it bids farewell to a form Chopin refined to an heroic song.
Lortat must have taken on the “Funeral” March Sonata (1928) – sans any repeats – knowing full well that his would be the most abbreviated rendition of them all. The acetate for the opening Grave – Doppio movimento is noisy, but Lortat’s virtuosity comes through. Try keeping up with his octaves in transition to the ‘development’ section. The last page flies away, maybe in competition with Roadrunner of cartoon land. The Scherzo actually fares better, controlled demonism. Lortat settles into the lyrical secondary theme with enough time to bask in the nostalgia. The Funeral March communicates noble breadth, pointed lyricism. Just as the bass figures become somewhat stolid, Lortat relaxes the tension and allows the line to sing. He possesses a truly strong trill. The emergence of the middle section is God’s own ray of light. The Gaveau instrument Lortat favors explains much of his refined sonority.
Robert Lortat left us some moving Chopin, ardent always, however idiosyncratic. His demise as an eventual casualty of WW I robbed us in music of what it had violated in Wilfred Owen in poetry. The pity of it. . .