LISZT: Fantasy and Fugue on the Choral “Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam,” S. 259 (arr. Busoni); Piano Sonata in B Minor, S. 178 - Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Garrick Ohlsson
Audiophile Audition

By Gary Lemco

Virtuoso ecstasies of demonic proportion from Ohlsson, who helps usher in the Liszt bicentennial.
LISZT: Fantasy and Fugue on the Choral “Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam,” S. 259 (arr. Busoni); Piano Sonata in B Minor, S. 178 - Garrick Ohlsson, piano - Bridge 9337, 61:20  [Distr. by Albany]

Garrick Ohlsson (b. 1948) helps usher in the Liszt bicentennial with these April 2009 readings of two massive keyboard works, the 1850 (organ) transcription of Meyerbeer’s “Ad nos, ad salutary undam,” from his opera Le prophete--here arranged for piano in 1897  by Ferruccio Busoni--and the mighty B Minor Sonata from the year 1852. Prior to Ohlsson’s thunderous performance of the Ad Nos Fantasy, I knew only one recording, that of the Russian virtuoso Yevgeny Mogilevsky, made some twenty years ago.

Ohlsson plays the Ad Nos Fantasy for sheer girth and magisterial might; the addition of Busoni’s thick chords and deep-toned bass figurations only magnifies the impact that this three-sectioned colossus achieves. The first part, a gripping Fantasy, has Ohlsson’s negotiating stentorian sonorities that adjust Meyerbeer’s original triple meter to a martial duple meter. A slow haunted transition leads to the Adagio, a serpentine theme that modulates to a major key variation in the form of a canon, a device clearly indebted to Bach. The stepwise motion of the Adagio aligns the piece with several of Liszt’s “Pilgrimage” works of the period. Besides a marvelously lucid texture, the piece boasts  rippling sonorities, what one commentator calls an “angelic arpeggiando final episode” in antiphonal registers. The chromatic fugue subject proceeds in broken style in dotted rhythm, the movement slightly suggestive of Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. Ohlsson’s potent aggression almost overwhelms the recording process, the sudden thrusts of sforzato shattering and manic. Busoni’s transcription tries to emulate the organ’s diapason, sending competing registers and figures in manifold directions, a virtuoso ecstasy of demonic proportions. The lovely Boesendorfer Imperial Grand makes a superb Liszt vehicle, ably prepared by William Schneider of Michigan state University.

The Ad Nos Fantasy may be a tough act to follow, but Liszt’s own B Minor Sonata manages to lift the gauntlet.  From the low G that opens this blazing interpretation, Ohlsson seems consciously scale the heights his precursors--Horowitz, Arrau, Wild, and Bolet--achieved in their respective traversals of this through-composed epic work. Its one-movement evolution into four sections takes its structure from Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasie and C Major Phantasie for Violin and Piano and simultaneously looks forward to Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht. The nocturnal elements in the thematic transformation appeal to Ohlsson’s equally fervent dedication to Chopin--although, ironically, the music of Schumann, the work’s dedicatee, has little to say to Ohlsson. The huge masses of sound--monumental stretti, in fact--rather, compel Ohlsson’s fluent attention, including a brilliantly wicked trill in the midst of stunning runs and broken chords. Improvisational, declamatory, rhetorically extravagant and romantically whimsical, the work embraces every affect, every humor. That Ohlsson extracts its essential singing line raises the level of performance well above the merely virtuosic into the realm of demonized, often contrapuntal poetry, one of the great Liszt statements for the new millennium.