Finding Felix

Pianist Louis Lortie and the Quebec Symphony Orchestra record Mendelssohn.

By Ben Finane

“Have you seen the Lang Lang Gewandhaus performance [of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto] on YouTube?” Lortie asks suddenly, turning to me. “He thinks he’s Bang Bang — and always looking at the audience!” Lortie shakes his head. “Still,” he says happily, “impressive technique.”

In the Adagio, Lortie is relieved that the second take was more in line with his aims: “Ah, this is better here,” he says in French. “The counterpoint is better, more Classical. The other has the air of Chopin — that irritates me. This is more religioso, simpler, more protestant. The other is too catholic.”

If during the concerto recordings Lortie lets his piano speak for him as far as interpretation, before the symphony there is more of a strategy session with the orchestra onstage, discussing crescendos, attack and the arc of the piece. When a trombonist enters rehearsal late, the orchestra deliveres a subtle stomping of its feet as a sardonic fanfare; a colleague in the French horn section signals him with a pantomimed insinuation inquiring if he was drinking the night before. The group is clearly comfortable with each other, if a tad exhausted.

Lortie concedes that he of course could have used more time with the “Reformation” Symphony, for which there is no “point de repère,” or reference point. “There are no easy references in the music because a lot of the language is not so clearly written up; the phrasing, articulation, even the dynamics in the score are very imprecise — a lot of it needs to be rethought.”

The pianist-conductor invests much of the orchestra’s time during the “Reformation” recording and re-recording the opening phrases of the Andante in hopes of pinpointing pristine balance in the brass and woodwinds. The approach seems draconian and more and more hopeless as they continue through take after take; then suddenly, in a moment, the sound finds its shape, the color rising lightly into the ether of the hall, evidence of the transparency Lortie has been seeking. Hopefully it is captured and archived before it dissipates.