Ohlsson turns a double play at Ravinia concert

Garrick Ohlsson
Chicago Tribune

Music lovers with a working knowledge of the Russian piano repertoire but little concern for timelines might be surprised to learn that Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin were born only a year apart and shared a similar pedigree. Yet their mature music sounds utterly distinct, serving as a touchstone for the modernist/traditionalist dispute that taints concert life even today.

Garrick Ohlsson surely had this duality in mind when he assembled works from both composers for an enthralling recital Monday at Martin Theatre at Ravinia.

Rachmaninoff developed an instantly recognizable personal style molded from the paradigms of his youth, riding his melodic gifts as a composer and his consummate pianism to international superstardom. Ohlsson coupled a keen lyrical sensitivity with a brawny sound in these Romantic war horses, though his manner was more lucid and detached than is currently fashionable.

In a set of five preludes, the pianist eschewed impetuosity in favor of carefully modulated rubato and subtle dynamic shading. Ohlsson achieved a nifty balance between Baroque delicacy and Romantic fervor in "Variations on a Theme of Corelli."

Scriabin's restless muse led him down paths far more experimental than his compatriot. Ohlsson seemed genuinely absorbed in these eccentricities, reveling in the irregular rhythmic subdivisions and occasional flirtation with atonality.

The Sonata No. 2 from 1897 already reveals the composer's restive spirit. Ohlsson wove the delicacy of Chopin and harmonic ambiguity of Debussy into a tightly integrated but tenderly drawn first movement. The touching "Poeme" in F sharp minor was rendered in pillowy textures and muted pastels.

The most compelling reading came in Scriabin's Sonata No. 5, imbued by the pianist with spasmodic bravura and frenzied restlessness. The final chords were pummeled with such barely controlled ferocity that Ohlsson was propelled off his bench, much to the delight (and surprise) of his devoted Ravinia audience.

These two keyboard virtuosi demand much from their interpreters, and Ohlsson brought his reliable fingers, formidable intellect and beefy sound to an ornate, lovingly restored 1893 Steinway with a lustrous rosewood patina, constructed a mere decade after the birth of the composers. The visual deviation from standard minimalist black was more striking than any aural distinctions, though attacks seemed a shade more brittle than those of its modern counterparts.