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Garrick Ohlsson – review

11.30.11
Garrick Ohlsson
The Guardian

By Tim Ashley

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson's recital at the Wigmore Hall, programmed with wonderful intelligence, was all about contrasted pairings – Handel with Brahms, Liszt with Scriabin. Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, exemplifying its composer's classically inflected Romanticism, was prefaced by Handel's own Suite No 2 in F, a maverick work with an inner logic all its own. The harmonic experimentation of Scriabin's late piano music, meanwhile, has its roots in extreme mystico-erotic leanings that nevertheless draw on the type of sensuous, high-Romantic religiosity we find in Liszt's Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude.

The muscular grace of Ohlsson's playing spoke volumes throughout. The surface elegance of Handel's suite, a sequence of adagios and allegros prefacing a curiously brief fugue, was troubled by sudden plunges into austerity that questioned the music's innate buoyancy. Brahms's variations, meanwhile, formed an immense emotional journey across a vast stylistic terrain. The rhetoric of the finale can sometime seem contrived after the inventiveness of the rest of it, but Ohlsson delivered it with exceptional energy.

The second half was full of surprises. At a time when gleaming tone seems fashionable in Liszt, Ohlsson opted for something altogether darker and warmer in an interpretation that was full of unsentimental fervour, if occasionally avoiding the outer limits of passion. The Scriabin – the Op 65 Etudes and the Fifth Sonata – was breathtaking, however. Ohlsson combines technical forces vast enough to make those fiddly intervals sound easy, with a superb sense of sonority and an awareness of the strange logic that underpins this music. The Etudes dazzled; the Sonata was almost reckless in its drama. A Scriabin sceptic, I found myself mesmerised – the highest compliment I can pay it.