Yesterday, the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall kick-started its own celebratory year with an all-Beethoven program by the remarkable Canadian pianist, Louis Lortie. One only turns 250 once, so why not take the whole year. And when it’s Beethoven, no one is complaining about hearing too much of his music. Koerner Hall began its Beethoven deluge with the Invesco Piano Concerts last fall when András Schiff included Beethoven and Yefim Bronfman gave an all-Beethoven concert.  There will be much more to come as we approach Beethoven’s birthday of December 16 or 17.

​Louis Lortie is from a generation of Canadian pianists who grew up in the glow of Glenn Gould’s remarkable career. Gould seemed to give Canadians the confidence that we could stand up with anyone on the world stage. It was the time of Expo '67, when Montréal not only hosted the world, but won the right to host the Olympics and earn a major league baseball team. It’s no wonder that Lortie and others would set out to earn their mark. Angela Hewitt, André Laplante, Janina Fialkowska, Jon Kimura Parker, Marc-André Hamelin and Angela Cheng were in that group of world-class pianists. (Angela Hewitt will be at Koerner Hall on April 26th.)

Lortie, for his part, has produced over 45 albums for Chandos records and performed with the major orchestras of the world. He is as active on the international concert stage as any pianist of his generation. He grew up engrossed in Beethoven, has recorded all 32 piano sonatas and on more than one occasion has performed the cycle. He has performed on the Koerner Hall stage regularly since the Hall opened, most recently two years ago in a memorable program of Chopin’s Études and Préludes. It’s not surprising that there were very few empty seats yesterday.

The program opened with Sonata No. 27, in E Minor op. 90 and Sonata No. 28 in A Major, op. 101 which Lortie performed without a break for applause. With the bright sounding Bösendorfer brought in for his concert, Lortie made use of its characteristics to bring out the profound contrasts in the first of these sonatas. The angry opening motive that returned again and again in the first movement of No. 27 had a real bite. In the second movement, Lortie found the singing tone of the instrument in the melodic phrases. I revelled especially in the second movement’s subtly performed Schubertian-like melodies. It was later in the program that Beethoven allowed for the virtuosic display of the artist. At just 13 minutes in duration, this sonata, one of Beethoven’s shortest, was a contrast to the Hammerklavier, his longest, in the second half of the program.

Sonata No. 28 began with the same sort of gentle lyricism with which the previous one ended. With more polyphonic textures and ever-more sophistication in the treatment of the themes, it marks the true beginning of Beethoven’s final period. This was indeed the romantic Beethoven. Lortie was true to the German marking in the music, “Etwas lebhaft und mit der inigsten Empfindung” (somewhat lively and with the warmest feeling). Lortie created a wonderfully gentle first movement followed by a brilliant march-like second with intense rhythmic vitality. It was in the third movement where Lortie’s poetic feeling for the longing of nature came through. It was as if he was telling a story in this movement. The fireworks came out in the finale, a contrapuntal romp with an energy and forward motion and driving force that has to be brought down to moments of quietude before once again being unleashed.

Following intermission came the main event, Beethoven’s longest sonata. At forty-five minutes, Sonata No. 29 in B flat Major, op. 106 (Hammerklavier) is longer than all of the symphonies with the exception of the ‘Eroica’ and the Ninth. Beethoven wrote the sonata when he learned  that piano maker John Broadwood was sending his best and biggest piano with a  6 octave range. The sonata opens with a fanfare that returns again and again as a building block of the first movement. It was the third movement that I found most striking. Its chronicle of pain and grief was powerful. At one point I noted that I didn’t know that a single note could carry such feeling. Beethoven, through Lortie, poured out his anguish revealing the deepest cervices of his soul. The finale was a tour de force of virtuosity and brilliant playing by Lortie as he navigated the complex challenges that Beethoven put in front of him. It’s no wonder that the audience was enthusiastic in its standing ovation. This was a concert to long remember.

The Beethoven 250th celebration will continue at Koerner Hall on February 14th when Johannes Debus conducts the Royal Conservatory Orchestra in a program that includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. On February 21st, Daniil Trifonov will present a program that will include some Beethoven along with Scriabin and Prokofiev. This concert sold out early, so if you don’t have tickets now, it’s already too late. 

Louis Lortie kicks off Beethoven’s 250th birthday party at Koerner Hall ​

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON January 27th 2019

Pianist Louis Lortie; Photo credit:


Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
- ​symphonic, choral, opera, chamber, jazz and period music​ -