Ahead of performances with WASO and ASO, the French-Canadian pianist explains the challenges of Chopin and Saint-Saëns.
What first drew you to the piano?
My parents were not musicians, but we moved to a house where there was a piano in the basement. My grandmother, who used to live with us at that time, came with us to visit the new house, and she sat down at the piano, which was a big surprise for me, because I thought I knew her very well. Immediately I said, how does that work? She explained the whole story, that she had to give up the piano when she was young because of the Depression and then she started to teach me how to read the notes. I was very eager, and it all happened very quickly. She found a teacher for me, and that’s how it started.
Did you listen to many recordings growing up?
My parents had an old, kind of, piece of furniture on which you played LPs – one of those huge pieces in the living room. So I remember having a hard time just leaning over to put on those LPs. Once I started learning the piano, either the teacher or somebody would say, why don’t you listen to that and that? So it just became a habit. I think my mum was buying a few recordings, and then I was myself. It was almost like a reward, after my piano lesson I would get a little bit of pocket money, go to the nearest record store, and then buy a couple of things with whatever I had left. So that’s how I started collecting recordings, and actually, I have all those LPs still with me.
Pianist Louis Lortie
Are there any particular pianists you remember listening to?
Many. I remember people who had strong personalities, especially with certain composers. Bach with Glenn Gould was something very unique. And then I had a recording with Clara Haskil of Mozart, which I still think today is one of the best Mozart recordings I ever heard in my life. Of course, those first encounters are very, very important. You never forget them.
You were performing with the Montreal Symphony at 13. How did that come about?
I remember every year preparing for some kind of competition, regional or national, so I would learn pieces and be ready at the end of the school year to play them in public. This was a competition organised by the orchestra, so I was very lucky to be able to participate and be chosen to play with them. I played Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. It was a great experience for somebody so young.
You were soon performing with the Toronto Symphony, touring Japan and China. How challenging was that at such a young age?
What was great about it was that it made you believe that touring was only about discovering wonderful places, and incredible cultural experiences. It’s not always the case! I was very privileged to start touring visiting such incredible countries, especially at that time, because China had just been opened again to westerners. It was completely closed off during the so-called Cultural Revolution. We heard stories from musicians who had been jailed and forbidden to play any kind of western music. And so it was very moving and very gripping.
You studied with Yvonne Hubert. What were the most important things you learned about playing Chopin with her?
I would say the connection, a very deep connection, to your own personality and to the music. I don’t think there is a composer where you are more yourself. You have to create your own personality. Of course, you have to respect what’s in the music, but in the end, it’s very much about your own personality. It’svery intimate music – the composer apparently never really played above mezzo forte.
I still find that Chopin’s probably the most difficult composer to interpret well. When I teach, I find that always Chopin is the most problematic composer to understand, because his music is just so refined and so deep in a kind of very elusive way. His personality was elusive and his works are as well.
You’re performing the First Piano Concerto in Perth. How do you think your relationship with that particular piece has evolved across your career?
It’s strange for me because I always played the second one when I was younger. The second one was composed first, and it’s more delicate and maybe not as challenging as the First. I played the Second so much that when I came to learn the first, I always felt that it was lagging behind, because I didn’t have as much experience with it. Now, I’ve played the First so much more in the last years, it almost feels I know it better. So it’s been an interesting fight between the two concertos.
It’s been quite interesting also for the relationship with the conductors and the orchestras. It looks like the accompaniments of Chopin are very unimportant – a lot of conductors don’t pay much attention and they just follow you – but you discover actually who are the really great conductors with those concertos, because they are very subtle, and you have to take them very seriously, and you have to create a kind of symbiosis with the soloist, which is very special.
And actually, conductors who have not done any opera, they’re completely at a loss when they do this music, because the soloist is almost as free as the singer. So in a way, you have to know drama – and lyrical drama – very well to be able to do them. One of my tricks is to come to a conductor – usually when I don’t know a conductor – and say, “I’m really sorry that you have to do Chopin with me, because I know for the orchestra, it’s problematic.” And then the reaction I get tells me everything. You have those that say, “Oh I love Chopin, he’s just such a fantastic composer,” and others who say, “don’t worry, I’ll just follow you.” Then you know they don’t really like it and it’s not going to be much of an experience.
The other piece you’re perfomring on this tour is Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto. For you, what are the pleasures of that piece?
It took me a long time to understand, actually, what this music was about, because it’s a kind of strange mish-mash of styles. There’s a famous quote, that this concerto starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach – and it’s so true. There’s such a mix of the religious and the secular, not to say the profane. It’s a very, very strange mixture, because also stylistically, composers in France in the middle of the 19th century were sort of split.
You had a big influence from Germanic composers. You just have to think of the admiration Berlioz had for Beethoven – he was completely crushed by Beethoven – and in a way, Saint-Saëns had the same problem. He felt very French, but he was educated playing Bach and the classics, which were almost all Germanic, so it’s a very complicated problem for aesthetics in those years. Saint-Saëns might seem a very benign and relatively easy composer to grasp, but he’s not. Because of all these paradoxes, not only with his own music, but with the music of his time and his country, it’s not as easy as one might think.
Louis Lortie performs with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra June 30 – Jul 1 and with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra July 7 – 8.