The piano repertoire of the romantic era walks a fine line between virtuosic display and vulgar excess. In a recital devoted to Chopin and Liszt, pianist Louis Lortie all but obliterated that line, indulging in bombast and shamelessly playing to the gallery Friday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

In the first half of the recital, presented by the Washington Performing Arts, the Canadian pianist played two sets of Chopin waltzes (Op. 34 and Op. 70) and two ballades (F major and F minor). Lortie rode the familiar surfaces of the music, vacillating between an amiable lyricism and generic bombast. Forget poetic introspection or expressive nuance. Lortie instead relied on elastic tempos and heavy pedaling for pianistic effect, foregoing opportunities to search deeper in the music. The waltzes lacked grace and charm, while the muddy, over-pedaled climaxes of the ballades were downright ugly.

After intermission, Lortie turned to some of Liszt’s dazzlingly inventive and fiendishly difficult operatic transcriptions. He paired his own version of the “Prelude” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (which Liszt did not transcribe) with Liszt’s transcription of the “Liebestod.” While the “Prelude” was merely ponderous, the “Liebestod” drew Lortie’s finest performance of the evening, evoking a passionate and spiritual yearning that finds its ultimate fulfillment.

Yet with Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” overture, the recital descended to vulgarity. The work is, to be sure, an unapologetic showpiece, yet it also rewards nobility of spirit, not to mention virtuosic poise and ease. Lortie summoned none of those qualities, instead treating the piece like an amusement park ride. Once again relying on the pedal as a crutch, Lortie pandered to the audience, manhandling the music with bombastic runs, violent trills, distorted phrasing and volume for its own sake. Musical expression yielded to empty showmanship. Before the final note finished sounding, the audience erupted in cheers.

Chin is a freelance writer.

HANDOUT IMAGE: Louis Lortie. (Elias/Handout Image)