Pianist Louis Lortie makes Wagnerian opera come alive in NPR's Studio 1. i

Pianist Louis Lortie makes Wagnerian opera come alive in NPR's Studio 1. Denise DeBelius/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Denise DeBelius/NPR
Pianist Louis Lortie makes Wagnerian opera come alive in NPR's Studio 1.

Pianist Louis Lortie makes Wagnerian opera come alive in NPR's Studio 1.

Denise DeBelius/NPR

Classical Sessions

Conjuring An Opera With Ten Fingers APM

Listen

Listen

Loading…

12:37
  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/310783199/310788004" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">

It's always been a treat to sit down with pianist Louis Lortie. In part because of his sound at the piano — the brightness, purity and clarity of his playing. But all the better to have a conversation with him, too. He is a sober, serious thinker, with an incisive point of view on every piece of music he chooses.

I was thrilled when he chose to play Franz Liszt's monumental piano arrangement of the final scene from the opera Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner for Performance Today. Knowing Lortie's dedication to thinking keenly about music, I wondered if he might base his approach on the dramatic events taking place at this fateful moment in the opera: Tristan and Isolde, truly-madly-deeply in love; Tristan dying in Isolde's arms; she is so overcome that she imagines he might be returning to life, when in fact she is going to join him in death.

"In the resonating sound," she sings, "in the wafting universe of the world's breath, drown, be engulfed, unconscious ... supreme delight!" It's heart-rending, and in true Wagnerian fashion, it's epic.

Lortie's take on this piece surprised me. For him, it's not so much about the narrative, it's about the actual sound he's producing on the piano. Wagner wrote this for full orchestra and soprano. Lortie is quick to point out the limitations of the piano: It only makes a sound when you hit a key, causing a hammer to hit a string, and then the sound can only get softer. How on Earth can you re-create the pulsing, throbbing ebb and flow of the trembling orchestral strings, the golden glow of the horns, the cascading crashes from the percussion section? Lortie talks about the "art of suggestion" on the piano, which can make it seem the "linear" piano is "producing curves."

And hearing him play it, his approach rings true. Just 30 seconds into his performance, there it is: his evocation of the trembling strings of the orchestra, quietly pulsing above the slowly unfolding melody. Liszt attempted to do the impossible with this piece, to bring the full color of a massive orchestra and a passionate soprano to life in the sound of a single piano. Lortie makes you believe in the impossible.

Set List:
  • Wagner/Liszt: "Liebestod" (from Tristan und Isolde)

Louis Lortie, piano

[+] read more[-] less

More From Classical

Tiny Desk Concert with Jason Vieaux and Yolanda Kondonassis. Meredith Rizzo/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Meredith Rizzo/NPR

Tiny Desk

Jason Vieaux And Yolanda Kondonassis

Watch the Grammy-winning guitarist and acclaimed harpist play music influenced by Africa and Asia.

Viola da gamba master Jordi Savall leads his ensemble Le Concert des Nations in a performance at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall on Apr. 16, 2015. AJ Wilhelm for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption AJ Wilhelm for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

Jordi Savall And Le Concert Des Nations

WQXR radio

Hear the consummate master of early music lead an exhilarating program of French compositions.

Listen Loading… 2:21:40
  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/347126561/401021961" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">

Tiny Desk Concert with Anonymous 4 on March 4. Emily Jan/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Jan/NPR

Tiny Desk

Anonymous 4 With Bruce Molsky

The a cappella quartet, with banjo and fiddle, offers popular songs from the Civil War era.

András Schiff takes late sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to Carnegie Hall. AJ Wilhelm/for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption AJ Wilhelm/for NPR

Carnegie Hall Live

András Schiff Plays Mozart, Haydn, Schubert And Beethoven At Carnegie Hall

WQXR radio

On March 10, hear the eminent pianist in a solo recital of sublime masterworks.

Listen Loading… 2:03:37
  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/347112344/392189990" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">

Baritone Thomas Hampson brings a Civil War-themed program to Carnegie Hall Feb. 9, 2015. Kristine Hoebermann hide caption

itoggle caption Kristine Hoebermann

Carnegie Hall Live

Thomas Hampson Sings A World Premiere

WQXR radio

Hear the beloved American baritone sing a new work by Jennifer Higdon in this recital.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert of powerhouse orchestral works at Carnegie Hall. AJ Wilhelm for NPR Music hide caption

itoggle caption AJ Wilhelm for NPR Music

Carnegie Hall Live

The Chicago Symphony Plays A Colorful Concert

WQXR radio

Hear the CSO and its charismatic conductor Riccardo Muti in a program of Scriabin and Debussy.

Listen Loading… 2:00
  • Playlist
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/347102210/382739058" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
Back To Top