Crisis, Crutches and Chopin: A Memorable Carnegie Debut

When the pianist Maurizio Pollini informed Carnegie Hall a few weeks ago that an ailing back prevented him from coming to New York for his annual spring recital, the hall’s administrators plunged into the tortuous process of finding a suitable replacement for one of the world’s irreplaceable concert artists. “We went through a litany of issues,” the hall’s executive and artistic director, Robert J. Harth, recalled. “Who was free on that date? How recently had he or she played in New York and in what context? Who didn’t have a visa problem? We’d sold a lot of single tickets for Pollini, who had planned to devote half his program to Chopin, so we looked for someone who had a Chopin program ready. After factoring in all these considerations, the list came down to a very small one.”

The pianist Carnegie eventually picked was Louis Lortie, a 44-year-old French Canadian with a highly praised discography on the small Chandos label, a major international reputation and relatively little exposure in New York. He’d never had a recital in Carnegie Hall, and his previous local appearance was two years ago at the Miller Theater, where he presented a decidedly non-mainstream program of Bach and the contemporary Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag. As if making his debut in Carnegie Hall on such short notice weren’t daunting enough, Mr. Lortie would be filling in for a superstar who has long commanded an ardent following in New York. The pinch-hitter’s program seemed almost foolhardy, since it consisted entirely of Chopin’s études-works which Mr. Pollini made virtually his own in a celebrated recording more than 30 years ago. Moreover, Mr. Lortie would be constrained by a nasty ailment of his own-a fracture of his right knee, which he had suffered several weeks earlier in a skiing accident at Lake Tahoe.

He was greeted, when he emerged onstage, with a collective gasp: Would he make it across the 40 feet or so from the stage door to the piano? Aided by crutches, he hopped laboriously on his left foot while his right one-below a knee stiffly held in a brace-dangled uselessly. He did make it, and after propping his crutches against a makeshift piece of furniture, he seated himself, rested his right foot on a block provided for elevation, and launched into a trouble-free reading of one of the supreme keyboard challenges. Soon, he had the audience gasping again-this time, at the sheer sweep and beauty of the playing.

Chopin composed his famous études in two sets of 12 each-Op. 10 and Op. 25-all before his 26th birthday, in 1836. (Soon thereafter, he added another set of three, which were published without an opus number and are known as “Trois nouvelles études.”) On one level, the études are designed as diabolical tests of piano technique in all its aspects, from hand-stretching to digital control, agility and dexterity. But they are anything but pedagogical in effect, and have long since taken their place as concert display pieces on the most dazzling level.

Chopin was an odd genius out (he was a nationalistic Pole who lived in France), and thus free to be completely himself. Unlike Schumann, Berlioz and Liszt, he was unshadowed by the towering precedence of Beethoven. Chopin’s singular accomplishment was to bring together the two seemingly incompatible musical loves of his childhood and his adulthood: the rigorously structured Germanic polyphony and harmonic richness of Bach, and the decorative expressiveness of Italian opera in his own day, the melody-driven bel canto lyricism of Bellini and Donizetti. In the youthful études, he created a template for the paradoxical union of styles that makes him such an original among the great composers, and he also set an example for others to follow, including Liszt, Brahms, Busoni and Scriabin.

Mr. Lortie, a fine-featured man with a disarming habit of raising his gaze to some far-off vista just when the going gets tough, is a pianist with an unusually broad repertoire who tends to concentrate his energies on one composer at a time. He’s been playing the études as a complete set regularly for many years (his 1986 Chandos recording of them is justly considered one of the finest on disc), and there was never any doubt that he had the most formidable passage work-the steeplechasing thirds, the leaping staccatos, the thickets of cross-accents, the cascades of double octaves-completely, as pianists like to say, in his fingers.

But, as Charles Rosen has pointed out in his brilliant account of this music in The Romantic Generation , “Chopin’s études are studies in color, and the technical difficulties concern qualities of touch more often than accuracy or speed.” That Mr. Lortie-who was playing a bright-sounding Fazioli instrument seldom heard in Carnegie-was able to achieve a distinct tonal glow, while doing justice to the constantly shifting coloristic nuances by using only the sustaining pedal with his left foot, was astonishing. Even more riveting was his understanding of the emotional depth in works that too often flash by without consequence.

Mr. Lortie studied in Montreal with Yvonne Hubert, a pupil of Alfred Cortot, and he resembles that legendary French pianist in the vivacity of his feeling. But Chopin’s rigor and urbanity forbid any heart-on-sleeve indulgences. Never was Mr. Lortie guilty of the charge leveled by Rachmaninoff at the great Cortot’s recording of the études: “Whenever it gets difficult, he adds a little sentiment.”

I didn’t see how Mr. Lortie could possibly top himself after completing Op. 25, but standing ovations compelled him to hobble out again for two encores, which he played with the freshness of someone beginning a whole new program: the Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, and the expansive Ballade in G minor, Op. 23, which he revealed as the magnificent vista toward which the études had been pointing.

A few days after the concert, I called Mr. Lortie in Europe (he’ll be back in New York for a recital at Rockefeller University on May 21) to ask him whether he had felt hobbled by the skiing accident. “Well, it was Carnegie Hall, after all, and I had no choice but to play,” he said. “In any case, I think that these works represent a dream of strength that Chopin didn’t have. Even in his 20′s, he was very sick and knew that he had only a limited time to live.” (Chopin died of tuberculosis in 1849; he was 39.) “As for me, the stage fright I felt was much worse than the physical discomfort. But once I started playing, it all disappeared.”