Robert Lortat studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the class of Louis Diémer, gaining a premier prix in 1901 and eventually winning the Diémer Prize in 1906. His professional debut was made in Paris the following year after which he toured Germany. He was one of the few pianists to programme the ‘complete’ works of Chopin, which he played in Paris and London during 1911 and 1912. The series was not, in fact, the complete works, but it did include the études, ballades, préludes, scherzos, both mature sonatas and the impromptus, plus a large quantity of polonaises, mazurkas and nocturnes.
Lortat had a lifetime bond with Fauré, to whom he wrote in 1912 requesting a meeting. At this first meeting Fauré was astonished that Lortat played all his works from memory. The composer asked Lortat to repeat certain pieces, saying of one piece, ‘No one has ever played it to me and I had forgotten that I had ever written it!’ He also dedicated his twelfth nocturne to Lortat, who participated in the first performance of Fauré’s Quintet No 2. In the spring of 1914 he gave four lecture-recitals on the music of Fauré at the Université des Annales in Paris and then returned to London to repeat the lectures and play the composer’s complete piano works. In London the lecture was reduced to ‘a short and neatly phrased eulogy’ and it was reported that ‘…he boldly attributed to Fauré most of the qualities which we look for in art of the highest kind, and his own playing of a number of the piano pieces, nocturnes, impromptus, and other things, went a long way towards bringing conviction. His interpretation had a fervour and romantic charm which carried his whole audience into complete sympathy with him and with the music.’ In fact, Lortat shared the stage with the composer himself who performed his Violin Sonata in A with Lady Speyer, and joined Lortat in the Ballade for two pianos.
At this time, before he was conscripted into military service during World War I, Lortat made his debut in America. During the 1920s, because of ill health caused by the inhalation of gas during the war, he concentrated on teaching and recording, although he did often perform with violinist Jacques Thibaud. He also occasionally performed larger works in Paris, such as Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 in 1924 and Chopin’s E minor Concerto Op. 11 and some études in 1930. However, his health had been severely weakened and his early death at the age of fifty-two was a direct result of the gas inhalation.
Unfortunately it would appear that Lortat did not record any Fauré; all his recordings are of Chopin. As he had performed complete cycles of the works in concert, French Columbia asked him to record the études, waltzes, préludes and the Sonata in B flat minor. The recordings were made in Paris between 1928 and 1931. The recording of the préludes is strong, bold and forthright, similar in style to Cortot; but Lortat displays an impetuousness that is even more evident in the sonata. Certain idiosyncrasies such as the extremely separated hands in the B minor Prélude seem exaggerated, yet the C sharp minor Prélude is given the lightest touch that makes it irresistible. Lortat takes the first movement of the sonata at such a fast pace that he has to use a considerable amount of rubato, leading to an unpleasant distortion of the rhythm. The études, as a whole, are good, yet some are weaker than others. Op. 10 No. 12 is played in a similar fashion to Ignaz Friedman, where Lortat rolls the left hand figure upward to the top note which he slightly suspends. Altogether he seems to improve as he progresses, so that the last few of Op. 25 are given excellent, bravura performances.
All these Columbia recordings were reissued on compact disc by Dante in the late 1990s but care was not taken over the production; some sides are transferred at the wrong speed, most notably the études, in which the pitch is nearly always sharp, sometimes by a semitone. All are currently unavailable.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist