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Putting Some Muscle in Chopin Along With the Poetry

11.14.10
Garrick Ohlsson
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

Anyone who went to Garrick Ohlsson’s recital at Alice Tully Hall on Wednesday evening thinking of Chopin’s music as the perfumed effusions of a dreamy, sickly Romantic must have been jolted out of that assumption by Mr. Ohlsson’s muscular playing.

Not that his performances lacked elegance or poetry, a word still associated with Chopin above all other composers. In this program — part of Mr. Ohlsson’s Chopin Project at Lincoln Center, celebrating the composer’s bicentennial — he offered interpretations that blended the gossamer and the athletic.

Mr. Ohlsson, for whom Chopin has been a staple since he became the first American to win the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1970, began with a refined rendition of the Nocturne in F. The singing lines of the opening melody unfolded with limpid finesse, an effective contrast with the turbulent explosions that followed and a reminder of the simmering tensions that lurk beneath Chopin’s aristocratic exteriors.

Thoughtfully wrought interpretations of five of the Opus 25 Études highlighted the details of each, like the delicate arpeggios of No. 1 (“Aeolian Harp”) and the juxtaposed rhythms of No. 2, which here sounded seamless and unrushed.

Mr. Ohlsson offered a ferocious, virtuosic rendition of the Scherzo in B minor, whose stormy opening must have shocked 1830s listeners probably expecting a lighthearted and playful work. The program also included elegant, expressive and cleanly articulated performances of the Mazurkas in A minor (Op. 17, No. 4) and C sharp minor (Op. 50, No. 3), the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante and the Barcarolle in F sharp major.

The concert ended on a fiery note, with the Sonata in B minor, in which Mr. Ohlsson again demonstrated his ability to segue between a light, fleet-fingered touch and meaty, powerful torrents of sound. The two encores were a lovely rendition of the Mazurka in E minor (Op. 17, No. 2) and a potent performance of the “Revolutionary” Étude.