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Pianist Garrick Ohlsson handles Tchaikovsky with aplomb in Cleveland Orchestra appearance

Garrick Ohlsson
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Packed with greatest hits it is not. And yet, on most accounts, the first Cleveland Orchestra program of 2013 hits home squarely.

Demonstrating the sheer inexhaustibility of even the canonic composers, the orchestra and music director Franz Welser-Most on Thursday took lesser-known works by two major figures and produced with them a rousing experience. Not all of the music was superlative, but the music-making most certainly was.

No performer can rescue Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from its secondary status. Especially compared with its famous predecessor, the piece is simply unwieldy.

But if any pianist has the power to make a splash with the concerto, it’s Garrick Ohlsson, who performed it Thursday at Severance Hall. He, it was clear, is its perfect match, the rare artist possessed of not only the virtuosity it demands but also the raw muscle and panache to make it thrilling.

Though performing the concerto for only the second time in his career, Ohlsson sounded as if he’d been playing it for decades. That he played it all constitutes an achievement, given the work’s length and difficulty. That he also played it from memory, and with such assurance, only further testifies to his brilliance.

The main feature of Ohlsson’s incredible show consisted of dazzling displays of technique and huge chords hammered out as rapidly and fiercely as similar gestures by the full orchestra under Welser-Most.

No less spellbinding were Ohlsson’s entr’actes. In delicate passages, his hands practically floated over the keyboard, and in the Andante, his exchanges with concertmaster William Preucil and principal cellist Mark Kosower, followed afterwards by friendly handshakes, were nothing short of touching.

But the kicker was his finale. Seemingly unfatigued, Ohlsson took the third movement at breakneck speed without losing control or sacrificing anything by way of clarity or feistiness. Had he also played an encore, as the audience wanted, one might have thought the concerto hadn’t cost him at all.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 is significantly stronger musically, though it too has been overshadowed. What’s more, the orchestra on Thursday also made a powerful case on its behalf.

Welser-Most has emerged of late as a distinguished interpreter of Shostakovich. Many of his talents for Bruckner apply, enabling him to understand the composer’s shifting moods and navigate long musical expanses without losing senses of shape or direction. He can keep the orchestra simmering for ages, then bring it to a feverish boil in an instant.

All of this came to bear on Thursday’s performance, especially in the lengthy first movement. A work that could have sounded drab or formless instead proved a gradual, enthralling climb in the dark, from one level of dread to another, with countless virtuoso contributions from the woodwinds illuminating the way.

The shorter inner movements received equally vivid treatment. The brief Allegro was a full-throttled sprint in the orchestra’s highest gear, while the calmer, more lyrical Allegretto, full of personal allusions by the composer, benefited from both the conductor’s steady hand and lustrous work by principal horn Richard King.

Only in the final movement did Welser-Most loosen his grip. Yielding to the music’s crazed, insistent quality, he let the players have at the piece, and they devoured it. What the Tenth signifies is a subject for debate, but about the quality of Thursday’s performance, there is no doubt.