Great Garrich Ohlsson



Symphony Hall

BankBoston Celebrity Series

Sunday, November 1,1998

On Sunday, renowned Chopin interpreter Garrick Ohlsson delivered the second of the Aaron and Anne Richmond piano recitals in Symphony Hall. Memorable for its full-steam-ahead vigor and its dynamic range, his playing did not disappoint a mid-size afternoon audience.


At the beginning of the Beethoven Sonata in G (Op. 31 No. 1) Ohlsson's fingerwork was troublingly sloppy, at least compared to his voicing; but this may have been a matter of adjusting to the piano. He took the opening allegro a good sight slower than the indicated vivace, but used the broadened canvas to play around with all its quirky syncopations.

Conversely, his adagio was more of an allegretto and here he may have been a little too playful. Ohlsson spun out long melodic lines, though his pedalling was admirably spare; and though the rhythm of the variations changed in predictable ways, his phrasing was never predictable.

The rondo finale was more or less nondescript. Ohlsson's dynamics seemed to lose subtlety here, and the first melody assumed an unseemly complacency. The movement offered a strange glimpse of what sort of Schubert pianist Ohlsson might be.

The Liszt sonata was another matter. Though not obvious at first, Ohlsson's approach to its many challenges was informed by a tight sense of musical architecture: emerging from all the kleptomaniacal rubati and enigmatic autofermatas was a storyteller's confidence. His fingerings were uncommon, his attack was lively bordering on sadistic, and he seemed to be thinking orchestrally all the way. Here if anywhere, "large and in charge" was the apt phrase--the big man put a whole register in the bass out of tune. Blending the bombastic and the priestly, Ohlsson made the 1854 warhorse sound fresh.

The second half of the recital was all Chopin, a calculation made no doubt in part on the success of Ohlsson's recordings for the Arabesque label. The Op. 46 Allegro de Concert in A is an exceedingly unpianistic work, and Ohlssonis performance was less than motivated, but at least he was about to make some sense of it. His ferocity in the chromatic runs recalled his excellent performance of the finale of the Second Piano Concerto.

The Op. 64 Waltzes are basically failsafe for any equipped pianist, but one might have hoped for a bit more gusto from Ohlsson, whose suavity in these three miniatures was at times offputting. The Minute Waltz (at 1:53, mind you) sounded tossed-off, although with a hilarious ending, and the third of the set had nothing to recommend it. Only the ravishing C-sharp minor, trademark of Rachmaninoff and Rubinstein, demanded close listening. Ohlsson privileged the left hand at times when other pianists wouldn't, and sculpted a middle voice between the melodies.

Things got slightly worse with the great C minor Nocturne, Op. 48, at a tempo that sapped its strength. This is one of the few performances I can think of where the chordal middle section was actually more interesting than its famous neighbors. The left hand would disappear and reemerge at odd, disjunct moments, and there was no sense of heightening at the return of the first theme in its slick new clothes.

Ohlsson did well to close the programmed portion of his recital with the B-flat minor Scherzo. This playing was feverish, addictive, note-perfect and luscious at once. An especially fine cantabile reminiscent of a well-played B major nocturne (Op. 9 No. 3) and a successful barrage of blind leaps made for a triumphant exit.

The Celebrity Series artists are generous this year--Ohlsson gave four well-chosen encores, beginning with a sansculottes Revolutionary etude, and continuing with a glib. graceful Mazurka (Op. 30 No. 4), an ostentatiously fast and harrowing C-sharp Etude (Op. 10 No. 4), and a morsel of Scriabine farfallonery, the Etude Op. 49 No. 3. In effect these encores were four excellent piano lessons.

The Richmond piano recitals go into hibernation until March 28, with the eagerly awaited return of Richard Goode to the Celebrity Series. Goode's recital with Dawn Upshaw more than a year ago is still on people's tongues, and his gift for Beethoven and Brahms will draw the crowds.

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