Review: Ohlsson proves his enduring mastery of ‘Rach 3’ in performance with San Diego Symphony
By Luke Schulze
There is a moment in the 1996 film “Shine” (a dramatization of the life of the pianist David Helfgott) when a piano teacher describes Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto as a “mountain.” While the piece may not be, as young Helfgott puns, “the hardest piece you could everest play,” it’s close.
The “Rach 3,” as it has come to be known, is a warhorse among warhorses, satisfying audiences and challenging aspiring pianists since its premiere in 1909. This past weekend, Garrick Ohlsson tackled it with the San Diego Symphony under the baton of Robert Spano at the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, and turned in performances that helped to both amplify the lore and mystique of the concerto and to further confirm Ohlsson’s reputation as an intelligent and fearsome pianist.
Part of the magic of this work is its dual nature as a rhapsodic, virtuoso improvisation that yet manages to adhere to a sensible, perceptible structural layout. Rachmaninoff’s knack for varying melodies over the course of the concerto allows the soloist to appear as a master improvisor, while tethering the thrilling technical difficulty of the piece to a clear architecture … provided, of course, the soloist understands the piece as well as Ohlsson does. He was on to every connection, no matter how subtle, with all thematic threads illuminated with a sense of sympathy and delight, from the myriad reconfigurations of the famous opening melody to the lyrical secondary gesture that returns like a sad recollection in the second movement Intermezzo.
Ohlsson can still manhandle great handfuls of notes as he did in the 1970s (he was especially fierce Saturday in the legendary cadenza to the first movement) but he remains above all a smart pianist, and brought a classical sense of equilibrium to this Promethean work. His encore, the gentle and singing E-flat Nocturne, op. 9, by Chopin, was likewise judicious, focusing on bringing the detailed melodic line into nuanced relief above the accompaniment.