Guest pianist Garrick Ohlsson gives richness and nuance to Chopin concerto.

02.18.10
Garrick Ohlsson
The Star Tribune

By William Randall Beard

A virtually full house greeted Garrick Ohlsson's triumphant return to Orchestra Hall on Thursday, playing the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 with Minnesota Orchestra. It's been nearly 30 years since his debut with the orchestra, and he remains a poet of the keyboard.

The great Romantic concertos set up the soloist and orchestra as equal forces. Chopin was content to assign his orchestra the role of accompanist, throwing the spotlight onto the soloist. And Ohlsson shone.

His was a richly nuanced performance, but one with no sense of self-aggrandizement. He prodigious gifts seemed always in service of the music. Particularly enjoyable were the operatic flights of fancy in the slow movement and the dazzling evocation of a mazurka in the finale.

The original-instruments movement has informed the way we hear the repertoire of the Classical Period, exposing large-scale Romantic interpretations of Mozart as historically inaccurate and missing the point of the music. It's hard for a large contemporary orchestra to achieve the desired transparency.

Music director Osmo Vänskä, for the first time with Minnesota Orchestra, led a dramatic reading of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 that captured the melancholy minor key essence of the symphony. But he maintained a Classical delicacy, as in the rococo ornaments in the second movement.

The propulsive energy of the Minuet balanced nicely with the clarity and instrumental detail of the finale, although that movement lacked the final degree of tragic import.

Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge," originally written as the final movement of a string quartet, was such a massive, demanding piece that Beethoven replaced it in the quartet and let it stand on its own. The late Michael Steinberg arranged it for string orchestra, increasing its monumental scope.

In a fugue, one voice states the themes and the other voices successively play them, interweaving with each other repetitively. The complexity of the counterpoint in this fugue is challenging for both musicians and audience.

Vänskä once again demonstrated his affinity for Beethoven. He kept a firm hand on the work's elaborate structure, without neglecting the epic passions of late Beethoven.

It is distressing to note that this program contained barely an hour of music. For people paying top price, that works out to more than a dollar an minute. This increasing brevity is a disturbing trend.