The Piano Files

Robert Lortat

A largely forgotten artist produced a few hours of recordings that reveal pianism that is both passionate and refined.
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Robert Lortat

It is fascinating how some pianists’ reputations continue to grow after their death while others’ do not. The French pianist Alfred Cortot, for example, is still known by present-day piano lovers 60 years after his death — doubtless due not only to the great number of recordings he made but also the marvellous editions he produced of scores by Chopin and other great composers, as well as the books he wrote. And yet other pianists who were his colleagues and fine artists themselves, with careers of note, are all but forgotten.

One of these is Robert Lortat. Born in 1885, he was, like Cortot, a student of Louis Diémer at the Paris Conservatoire, and was also a friend of Fauré’s, performing the entirety of that composer’s piano works yet strangely not recording a note of his music. He did record a few hours of Chopin, but after he died aged 52 in 1938 as a result of lingering health issues due to mustard gas inhalation in WW1, he appears to have been largely forgotten.

To my knowledge, none of the Lortat’s recordings were ever released on long-playing records in the second half of the 20th century, but in the early years of CDs in the 1990s most of them did come out, albeit in poor sound and often at the incorrect pitch. A few years ago, his complete Chopin recordings were again reissued, not in perfectly ideal sound but definitely far better than previously, so now there is an opportunity for Lortat’s bold and vivacious playing to be appreciated by a wider audience.

Some of the most impressive recordings he left are of the complete Chopin Etudes and Preludes, readings that blend a fiery temperament with attention to detail and wonderful tonal colours. There’s an impetuousness to his playing that is remarkable, a drive and momentum that result in incredibly passionate performances. It is interesting that he set down his account of the Chopin Etudes and Waltzes a few years before his colleague Cortot recorded his, and that while the latter cycles have been reissued countless times worldwide, Lortat’s have not — a great shame, as these are truly insightful and impressive readings.

While there are other CD-based uploads of his recordings that one can find online (and the original CDs are recommended to lovers of historical recordings), this next link is one that I find to be particularly alluring as it features the great artist’s playing in impeccable sound. These transfers of the complete Chopin Waltzes offered to me by an amateur engineer (Tom Jardine, to whom we offer our sincerest thanks) have very little ‘crackle’ from the old records and Lortat’s playing is incredibly well reproduced, his luscious tonal colours and attention to detail all the more appreciable in full-bodied sound. I have presented them in the order in which they were put on record — which, due to the limited timing available on discs turning at 78 revolutions per minute (four to five minutes per side), meant that works were not always presented chronologically. You therefore have the opportunity to hear these performances as listeners in the 1930s would have experienced them.

And what playing it is, readings that are unconventional by today’s standards but both emotionally moving and musically insightful, with some fascinating use of rubato and dislocation of the hands yet without losing the sense of pulse or the line, and a glorious array of tonal colours.

One wonders what riches Lortat might have left us had he recorded a broader selection of his repertoire and had he lived longer. Fortunately, however, some his playing was preserved and as can be heard here, what we might lack in an abundance of discs he compensates for in spirit, passion, and musicality. An inspiring artist!

Website: thepianofiles.com

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