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Form and function, perfectly aligned

08.26.10
Garrick Ohlsson
Boston Globe

By Matthew Guerrieri

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson’s all-Chopin recital at Tanglewood on Tuesday (the first of two programs celebrating the composer’s bicentennial — the second is tonight) was a collection of genres implying Romantic impulse, but constructed with unusually durable engineering. It’s why Chopin anchors the repertoire when so many of his contemporaries faded: No other composer so successfully squared a robust sense of form with a profusion of ornamental function.

Ohlsson’s uncanny aptitude for Chopin’s form and function rests in his ability to adapt his prodigious technique to suit both. In the opus 36 Impromptu, Chopin decorates the return of his initial theme with a flurry of right-hand passagework. Ohlsson not only provided consistent color — a rustling pastel — but controlled the extended line to serve its structural function, making the return of the second theme enough of an event to propel the close. In the opus 39 C-sharp minor Scherzo, Ohlsson maintained the melodic integrity of the furious octave barrages that interrupt the opening theme, forging a connection to the clouds of downy filigree decorating the second theme.

In the D-flat major Nocturne (opus 27, no. 2), Ohlsson’s deep touch freed him to pedal delicately, clarifying Chopin’s contrapuntal levels; his reserves of power maintained the tenderness of the main theme even at a full double-forte dynamic. That sort of right-tool-for-the-job versatility was on intricate display in the opus 47 A-flat Ballade and the opus 49 F minor Fantasy: Ohlsson roped together these seemingly free-form canvases, bringing out Chopin’s connective threads with congruities of touch and color.

Ohlsson devoted the second half to Chopin’s opus 28 Preludes, 24 miniatures ranging from fragmentary to aphoristic to concentrated. While expertly indulging Chopin’s individual atmospheres — a dry limpidity in the rolling left-hand of no. 3, or the etude-like rumble of no. 14 — Ohlsson also sought the set’s overall shape, often joining major-minor pairs. An expansive rubato in the B-major 11th prelude was answered by the athletic speed of the G-sharp minor 12th. The pointed, tolling bass at the climax of the A-flat major 17th set up the similarly sharp force of the F minor 18th.

Ohlsson let out more leash for his encores: a grandly eccentric reading of the opus 18 Waltz — outré shifts of tempo, even a bit of anachronistic Viennese afterbeat — then a ruminative version of the C-sharp minor Waltz (opus 64, no. 2). It was a casually accomplished coda to a display of impressively disciplined fancy.