Canadian pianist Louis Lortie came to Duke University’s Reynolds Theater for a relatively short program devoted to Chopin’s complete Études (Studies), composed across a period of just 11 years (1829-40) and published in three groups – twelve each in Op. 10 and Op. 25 and then three more comparatively subdued ones written for the Méthode des Méthodes issued by pianists and teachers Ignace Moscheles and François Joseph Fétis. The concert was offered as the third of six Piano Recital Series programs presented by Duke Performances.

Complete performances of the studies are rare, although many pianists are famous for having played all of them. In the early days of electrical recording, Bachaus, Cortot, and Lortat were among the “complete” contenders, and scads of other famous names offered various excerpted numbers; by the end of WWII, the competition included Brailowsky, Koczalski, and Kilenyi (who didn’t record the three “New Études”). The Lp era brought still more to the fore, including a memorable “private” set by sonata scholar William S. Newman, recorded in the summer of 1962. Running about an hour all told, the 27 short works lend themselves to handy issue on a single CD, and there are numerous choices, including a set by Lortie himself (Chandos CHAN-8482, recorded in 1986).

All that said, some of these things are far better known than others, as Lortie’s recital demonstrated. That’s because a few have been popularized as encores, those being mostly the ones with appreciable musical appeal, beyond the technical challenges all of them present to players. (None are difficult or particularly challenging for listeners, for these pieces are, after all, by Chopin!) Those “encore pieces,” too, tend to be the ones that over time have picked up nicknames – in Op. 10, “Grief” (or “Tristesse”), “Torrent,” “Black Keys,” “Toccata,” “Villanelle,” and “Revolutionary” (or “Fall of Warsaw”); and in Op. 25, “Aeolian Harp,” “Butterfly,” and “Winter Wind.” Therefore one of the delights about revisiting the complete collection, whether via recordings or the infrequent live recital, is in rediscovering some of the less-well-known gems. That was certainly a highlight for this listener during Lortie’s Duke program.

The presentation was given an aura of quasi-religiosity by the fact that he played through all of Op. 10 with barely a pause between each number. The presenter announced that no one would be admitted during the performances – would that all presenters would adopt this policy, all the time! The substantial audience sat in rapt concentration and attention, some seeming hesitant to breathe. It was intense – as intense as any program in recent memory. There was an intermission, and then the three “New Études” preceded all of Op. 25, again played without much air-space in between.

Lortie didn’t beat around the bush. He launched into Op. 10/1 like a demon possessed, suggesting to this listener Liszt the firebrand far more than Chopin the romantic poet. It was so dramatic, so virtuosic, and so brisk that the music behind the notes at first made little sense – a perception that was to recur from time to time during the course of the evening, although by and large Lortie seemed to become more lyrical and marginally more relaxed as the program unfolded. (Granted, this could have involved this listener’s gradually getting used to his approach to this music, too…).

That interpretive reservation aside, this was an evening of great technical triumph for the guest artist, whose playing clearly impressed many members of the audience – Duke’s patrons tend to be conservative in their displays, but this time there were standees and yells and cheers at the ends of both halves. For sure, Lortie has the chops to play these fiendishly difficult pieces, and he does so with evident style and knowledge of how the rubato and phrasing and dynamics and tone colors can and perhaps should go to serve his concept of the various numbers. It was quite a night, to put it another way. I just wish that there had been a hair’s breadth more space between some of the notes, in the interest of greater clarity in some of the studies. In any event, as “complete” traversals of Chopin go, this one was dazzling, placing it in close proximity to Clifton Matthews’ splendid rendition of all the nocturnes in Winston-Salem a little over a year and a half ago.

Note: There were two (unannounced) encores, the first being the largest single piece played all evening; with thanks to DukePerformances for confirming them, they were the Scherzo No. 1, in b minor, Op. 20, and the Nocturne in B Flat minor, Op. 9/1.