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Garrick Ohlsson

Review: Ohlsson, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review – a Rachmaninov special

A consummate pianist in complete control of a concerto Everest

From The Arts Desk

by Robert Beale

Maybe he thought it was a relaxing way to celebrate his recent 75th birthday – maybe he just fancied a trip to Manchester to play with the BBC Philharmonic – either way there was something very special to hear in Garrick Ohlsson’s Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto on Saturday.

It’s often considered one of the greatest challenges for any virtuoso pianist, not least because it’s a 40-minute score in which the soloist is hardly ever silent. There are constant torrents, cascades and armfuls of notes, so that it’s simply a marathon before any question of interpretation or approach arises. But Ohlsson performed it with consummate skill, completely in control of all its demands and creating with it something of great musical beauty.

John Storgårds was back on the rostrum in his role of chief conductor (an appointment which took effect only last November after his many years as principal and chief guest conductor), and the second part of the winter season, now under his management, has a string of big works by Rachmaninov running through it, to celebrate the composer’s 150th birthday year. He and Ohlsson make a formidable partnership.

The factor that first struck me was the way the lyrical solo themes came across in the first movement, with a disarming kind of sweetness that is as much characteristic of Ohlsson’s playing as his technical mastery. That quality of purity, and some glorious surges of tone from both piano and orchestra, were richly rewarding in the central Intermezzo, too, and skillfully prepared the ground for an electric moment of transition as the finale began. Ohlsson and Storgårds took its alla breve tempo at a hurtling pace, and what could have been just a thrilling ride still had room for gentleness. It’s lovely to hear a soloist of such spectacular ability who is willing to be part of the background at times and to play Rachmaninov as if, at times, he were Chopin.

The final pages of the concerto had quite extraordinary strength and impetus, utterly musical to the last, and the Philharmonic brought a glow of sunshine to their contribution. As if that were not enough for a septuagenarian on one night, Ohlsson finished the evening with some actual Chopin (the dreamy E flat Nocturne op.9 no.2), played with the kind of artistry that hides exceptional art.

Anyone who wasn’t there in the hall should make a point of listening to the Radio 3 broadcast, as it will be an experience to savor.

Read the full review.