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Pianist displays rare virtuosity

06.12.08
Garrick Ohlsson
Chicago Sun-Times

 Ohlsson brings vigor to an evening of Scriabin

The American piano virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson recently turned 60, but he still plays with the enthusiasm of someone less than half his age.

Ohlsson opened the Ravinia Festival's classical season with back-to-back Martin Theatre recitals Monday and Tuesday nights centered on the prophetic and half-mad Russian Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Tuesday's program focused on the final works of this ecstatic pioneer of structure and tonality, and Ohlsson delivered rarely played pieces in an unforgettable manner.

The piano was a means to Scriabin's proposed end of expressing feeling and universalism in sound and even light and pageantry. A contemporary of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin went in almost exactly the opposite direction from the popular performer-composer. Rachmaninoff showed the lush and rhythmic possibilities of what could be done with the modern piano. Scriabin used the piano as a launching pad to express in music the unconscious psyche and the mysteries of nature.

Central to Ohlsson's selections were the two final sonatas, No. 9 and 10. Single-movement works, they present extraordinary technical challenges while simultaneously asking us to forget the pianist's technique and focus on their essentially spiritual messages. Ohlsson, a very large man, not only can be counted on for precise jackhammer rhythms but, in moments of mystical softness, his long fingers seemed like delicately choreographed spaghetti.

In other brief works, Ohlsson somehow combined a trancelike state with flawless articulation. But it was the program-closing "Towards the Flame," Op. 72, and the three etudes, Op. 65, which even Scriabin cited for their experimental nature, that saw Ohlsson reach technical and interpretive heights that might have astonished the composer himself.