MUSIC REVIEW: Storyteller Well Versed in Liszt’s Versatility

Garrick Ohlsson
The New York Times

By Vivien Schweitzer

The pianist Garrick Ohlsson spoke recently of his affinity for Liszt, an empathy that was certainly evident during his stunning performance of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor at the 92nd Street Y on Sunday afternoon.

Liszt is a boldface name this season, with myriad pianists celebrating the bicentennial of his birth. But even amid stiff competition, Mr. Ohlsson’s performance stood out for the passion and force of his interpretation, enhanced by his clear voicing of inner lines and the dramatic juxtaposition of contrasting elements.

In less capable hands, huge sonatas like the Liszt B minor can easily meander off track, but Mr. Ohlsson’s gifts as a storyteller held the audience spellbound. He achieved the rare feat of eliciting silence from his listeners; there was barely a cough or a rustle throughout the program.

Mr. Ohlsson also brought a spontaneous sense of drama to Liszt’s arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542), which opened the program. Liszt was a prolific arranger of the music of his predecessors, including Bach, in an era when piano transcriptions were used to disseminate a variety of scores before the existence of recorded music.

Mr. Ohlsson has described Liszt’s intense “Funérailles,” written to commemorate the execution of 14 Hungarian revolutionaries, as “a kind of proto-Mahler piece,” with elements of the sonata’s drama. The dramatic aspects were brilliantly exploited here. The crescendos of the left-hand octaves unfolded with spine-tingling intensity, vividly contrasted with Mr. Ohlsson’s poetic nuance as the piece morphed from funeral march to danse macabre to quiet melancholy.

The mystical side of Liszt was represented with a lovely rendition of the impressionistic “Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este” (“Fountains at the Villa d’Este”), a painterly depiction of gently rippling water.  Mr. Ohlsson’s clear articulation elegantly highlighted the Lisztian filigree in the “Transcendental” Étude No. 5, “Feux Follets” (“Will-o’-the-Wisps”).

Mr. Ohlsson concluded the program on a virtuosic note with the “Mephisto Waltz” No. 1. As an encore, he offered Liszt’s “Klavierstücke” in A flat, one of a set of short piano pieces written late in his career.