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Garrick Ohlsson brings refined power to Romantic program

10.26.09
Garrick Ohlsson
Chicago Classical Review

By Bryant Manning

The program for Garrick Ohlsson’s piano recital Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall was 19th-century comfort food.  Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, Chopin Preludes and a Beethoven sonata gave way to several encores of which Schroeder of Peanuts fame would highly approve: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor (Op. 3, No. 2), Chopin’s E-Flat Waltz (Op. 18) and the Mazurka Op. 50, No. 3. Throw in this summer’s Ravinia performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto and Mr. Ohlsson remains one of the most persistent and strongest advocates around for the popular Romantic repertory.

His matinee recital before a relatively sparse crowd showed that concert staples are still exciting if an incisive mind is there to play them. The towering pianist could not have been a better salesman for Liszt’s phantasmal Sonata in B Minor, which unravels as one long mercurial and continuous single movement.  If the work’s more clangorous moments often bring out the worst in brash young pianists, then it was a revelation to hear Ohlsson emphasize the sonata’s abundance of quietude and theater.

Tempi were exaggerated but never pushed to their limits. The work is fraught with restlessness and the disquieting scenes that occur at the lower end of the piano held reserves of suspense.

Ohlsson never seemed to favor or accentuate certain passages either in this vast masterwork, but instead stitched every tugging part together in this quasi-symphonic quilt. Transitions were never abrupt. If Liszt at his worst is a dizzying multitude of notes, he also shines when those cascades sound like more than scales. Ohlsson was never outmatched by the score’s difficulties, and even card-carrying Liszt haters had to admire such a mature and poetic performance. 

While Ohlsson is no longer a young man (he won the prestigious Chopin competition in 1970), he is still as nimble and fleet as any twenty-something fresh out of Juilliard. His complete performance of all 24 Chopin Preludes nicely framed the composer’s devilish technical mastery (No. 16  and No. 24) alongside the most simple singing melodies that young children learn in their first lessons (Nos. 4 and No.7).

These were not daring or indulgent interpretations but rather agreeable impressions of Chopin’s most beloved set of piano works. No. 8 in F-sharp possessed the same spectral qualities that Arthur Rubinstein often would favor and the mini funeral march of No. 20 proceeded bleakly (Although pianissimos in the middle section were almost inaudible.) Ohlsson attractively brought out the hidden voices in the sunny No. 5 yet smudged several passages in the stormy G-Sharp minor prelude. While not the most memorable traversal of these pieces, this was still a compelling way to fill out the program’s entire second half.

If the preludes were pianistic candy, the Beethoven Sonata No. 13 in E-Flat, Op. 27 No. 1 (Quasi una fantasia) was a more substantive treat, feeling at once profoundly personal and lighthearted with each passing measure.  Fanatical attention to the silence around the notes made every press of the keys a religious offering. Even the fugal nature of the Allegro molto e vivace was relaxed, and the quietly creaking floorboards of the stage sounded almost magical during the raw stillness of the adagio con espressione. This was very memorable Beethoven.

Post program, Ohlsson executed his encores with plenty of flair and speed, a requisite route most pianists take for such showy music.