Conjuring An Opera With Ten Fingers At the piano in NPR's Studio 1, Louis Lortie re-creates Wagner's vocal and orchestral palette in Liszt's arrangement of the rapturous "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde.

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

toggle caption
Denise DeBelius/NPR

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

Denise DeBelius/NPR

Classical Sessions

Conjuring An Opera With Ten Fingers American Public Media

Conjuring An Opera With Ten Fingers

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/310783199/310788004" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

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

Gurtman and Murtha Artist Management

Ruth Laredo On Piano Jazz

Hear "America's First Lady of the Piano" explore the boundaries between classical music and jazz with host Marian McPartland in this 2004 episode.

Ruth Laredo On Piano Jazz

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/562620476/562624249" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Dancers in "Stalactites," a video by Mark DeChiazza, based on Orpheus Unsung, a theater work composed by Steven Mackey, with Jason Treuting. Mark DeChiazza hide caption

toggle caption Mark DeChiazza

Orpheus Reborn With Dancers, Drums And Electric Guitar

A new video, featuring a score by Steven Mackey with Jason Treuting, retells the ancient tale of love, loss and the power of music.

Penguin Cafe performs a Tiny Desk Concert on May 2, 2017. (Claire Harbage/NPR) Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Claire Harbage/NPR

Penguin Cafe

Penguin Cafe folds in sounds from around the world and throughout music history — Africa, Kraftwerk, Brazil and Franz Schubert.

Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir revised her piece Aura especially for The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet. David Holechek hide caption

toggle caption David Holechek

Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Volcanic Transmissions

As members of the Los Angeles Percussion Quartet bow their vibraphones, brush their gongs and message their bass drums, the composer's evocative music oozes from blackness.

Ludovico Einaudi, performing live for KCRW. Larry Hirshowitz/KCRW hide caption

toggle caption Larry Hirshowitz/KCRW

Ludovico Einaudi, 'Petricor' (Live)

KCRW

Watch the pianist and composer, joined by a full band, in a stunning live performance for KCRW.

Opera singer Joyce DiDonato created this video to go with her new album, In War and Peace: Harmony through Music. Warner Classics hide caption

toggle caption Warner Classics

In Chaotic Times, A Singer's Plea For Freedom

Opera star Joyce DiDonato does more than sing — she lends her voice to social causes. Watch her new video, a haunting depiction of a woman trapped in conflict.

Back To Top