Live long enough and you could swear you have heard every possible way a piano can be played. Consider: you may have heard, live or recorded, the great technicians (Pollini, Michelangeli, Horowitz), the poets (Rubinstein, Kempff), countless Bach and Mozart and Schubert specialists, the titans of the old Grand Manner (Wild, Bolet), and today, of course, the steady stream of young whiz-bangs coming from conservatories like so much product from a sausage factory.

And then there is Louis Lortie, who, on the strength of his recent performance (for Duke Performanes) at Baldwin Auditorium, may just be the finest pianist you never heard of.

Lortie’s name is not new to piano enthusiasts, but judging from comments overheard in the lobby, his brilliant performance took many by complete surprise.

Perhaps his lack of name recognition accounted for the dismal attendance; barely half the hall was filled. Some, like the presenter who introduced the performer, blamed the weather. (Rain. Really?*) In any case, his program should have drawn Franz Liszt enthusiasts no matter who was playing.

That program was no less than books one and two of Liszt’s profoundly moving Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). As presented here, there were 16 pieces – all musical impressions of images, landscapes, poems and other works of art Liszt encountered on his travels to Switzerland and Italy.** The works present enormous technical challenges; to play both books is to go beyond in sheer physical demand even all of the composer’s Transcendental Etudes.

To provide an account of all 16 compositions would quickly become tedious. Let’s try hitting a few of the high points and then we’ll get to why – really why – this performance was special.

The Swiss set (Book I) opens with a tribute to William Tell, the legendary Swiss patriot. The piece tells a great deal about what is to follow. It is at various times thunderous and tender, animated and introspective. Lortie’s playing had both power and sensitivity. The next piece, “At Wallenstadt Lake,” is the very essence of peace and tranquility, and Lortie’s performance was appropriately tender.

Plenty of thunder erupted during the piece entitled “Orage” (“Storm”). This is clearly among the most challenging works by the composer, and Lortie’s handling of its technical challenges, basically without mistake, was remarkable.

“Obermann’s Valley” is one of Liszt’s truly unforgettable works. A dark and lugubrious first section gives way to a redeeming loveliness in the second and concludes with a virtuosic recapitulation of themes in the third. In Lortie’s hands these contrasts possessed a sense of inevitability.

The Swiss set concludes with “The Bells of Geneva,” the mood of which is consistently one of joy, even bliss. It concludes in barely audible chords suggesting the fading bells, and Lortie’s control of dynamics, consistently reliable throughout the evening, made this ending heavenly.

The compositions based on Liszt’s travels to Italy (forming Book II) do not, with big exceptions, enthrall the listener like those from Switzerland. The three opening works – “Marriage of the Virgin,” “The Thinker,” and “Canzonetta of Salvator Rosa” – were lovingly shaped, and definitely confirmed the pianist’s commitment to the material, but they lack the depth and variety of the others.

The Three Sonnets of Petrarch are quite another matter. These are beautiful, songlike miniatures, and the pianist’s attention to the singing line (Liszt originally intended them to be songs) gave them a beautifully expressive quality.

The Italian set concludes with one of the composer’s monumental, stand-alone works, the Après une lecture de Dante, or Dante Sonata, as it is commonly known. It is a hair-raising work, its emotional landscape running from scenes of rage from the depths of hell to the feathery beating of angel wings. Hardly any need to add that the opportunities for technical wipeout are hidden around every hellish corner.

Lortie’s performance was very simply stunning – a brilliant display of thorough musicianship, virtually error-free execution and commitment to the ideals of the score.

Now as to why this artist is such an arresting one….

Comparisons are invidious and this reporter is uneasy making one, but in this case one might be useful. Two or three years ago the pianist Lang Lang released a DVD of an all Liszt program. It was filmed live in a pop-concert type venue with lots of colorful flashing lights and cheering fans. The performance was Lang Lang’s usual mixture of uncanny technique and breathtaking sound. It didn’t hurt a thing that the musicality was all there as well.

Lortie’s performance at Duke had something extra. Sure, like Lang Lang, he was committed to providing a brilliantly executed program. But it also seemed that, more than anything, Lortie wanted to make his audience believe in those pieces, as he does himself.

Couple of notes: After four curtain calls, the artist returned with Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral.” A journeyman performance, certainly, but not exactly remarkable.

Also, the presenter noted that because of icing conditions, the artist had earlier missed his flight to Greensboro, and only got into the Raleigh airport at 3:30 p.m. the day of the performance, with no rest – and no luggage. And that is why Lortie performed his program in a faded black long-sleeve t-shirt and green cargo pants. The audience was charmed.

*In truth, parts of the Triangle were indeed hammered, weather-wise, especially including Orange County, where many regular patrons of Duke Performances reside.

**We often eschew Wiki references, but in this instance the info seems completely reliable, so click here for details on the three books.