Pianist brings out Brahms's crisp delicacy

Garrick Ohlsson
The Austrailian

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and MSO Chorus
Hamer Hall, November 15

By Eamonn Kelly

These are exciting times at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra is revelling in an acoustically invigorated Hamer Hall and a new international artistic and management triumvirate is arriving: Englishman Andrew Davis as chief conductor, Venezuelan Diego Matheuz as principal guest conductor and Canadian Andre Gremillet as managing director.

Reflecting this air of confidence and renewal, the first of three MSO concerts featuring American concert pianist Garrick Ohlsson proved an exercise in calm majesty and nuanced reflection. A renowned Chopin interpreter, Ohlsson on this tour focuses exclusively on Brahms, presenting both piano concertos and a chamber program comprising the Piano Quintet, two Rhapsodies, and Handel Variations.

Launching this homage was a program that paired the thick textures, restless romance and heroic spirit of Piano Concerto No 1 with the transcendental calm, plainchant foundations and shimmering harmonic washes of Maurice Durufles Requiem. Ohlsson is a commanding, unpretentious figure at the keyboard, absent superfluous movement and possessing raw strength and graceful control in arm, wrist and finger action. Combined with an astute musical intellect, this technique provided the basis for a grand and expansive account of the Brahms concerto.

Where others bring percussive weight to the first movement's bracing chords, dramatic trills and burbling sequences, Ohlsson provided depth of tone, clarity of expression and delicacy of dynamics.

Equally notable was Ohlsson's delivery of the third movement's virtuosic exuberance and dramatic contrasts, his touch crisp, refined and lyrical.

Most impressive was a superbly measured performance of the slow movement. Under the vigilant baton of Tadaaki Otaka, the orchestra fused tension and tenderness through liberal phrasing, elegant contrasts and graduated dynamic shifts, while Ohlsson offered a modest yet regal interpretation, luxuriating in the movement's simple sincerity and emotional intimacy.

Infrequently performed in Australia, Durufle's Requiem is an ethereal masterpiece even more tranquil than its better-known analog, Faure's Requiem. In Europe it is heard in reverberant stone cathedrals, melodic lines floating through the air to become the voices of angels and departed souls. While Hamer Hall proved less atmospheric, its responsive acoustic better revealed the work's dramatic contours and subtle orchestration. Prepared by Jonathan Grieves-Smith, the MSO Chorus offered a full-blooded reading that retained peaceful beauty but did not shy away from moments of intensity. Further adding gravitas was the use of fine operatic soloists Jose Carbo and mezzosoprano Deborah Humble.