[Philharmonic review coming Sunday afternoon.]
GARRICK OHLSSON LEAVES LORENZ AUDIENCE SPELLBOUND
Precision and elegance highlight romantic program.
By Walter Saul - October 24, 2009
The first thing that strikes one about Friday’s Lorenz Memorial Keyboard Concert is the large scale of so many elements: the huge architecture of the three works presented, the massive dynamic range commanded by pianist Garrick Ohlsson, and those outsized hands which make child’s play of the considerable stretches and grand musical spaces featured so prominently in the program.
As one settles in to the opening Beethoven fantasia quasi sonata in E-flat major, Opus 27, no. 1, the companion work to the more famous Moonlight Sonata, one is also struck by the precision on such elegant display. It seems possible that Ohlsson will not miss a note, but there are other dimensions of this precision: the beautifully showcased melodies that emerge effortlessly from the multi-stranded harmonies, impeccably shaped and tapered. All is so easily under the control of this consummate artist, including an audience that sat spellbound through the entire evening.
Ohlsson began the Beethoven so intimately, in fact, that the recording equipment had to be turned up, which resulted in a momentary feedback loop that, thankfully, was quickly quieted. Then he exploded into the Allegro in the first movement, pinning us all back in our seats by this onrush of sudden power. Ohlsson knows the magic of the long pause, rushing headlong into a chord that he let subside into the return of the quiet opening, now transformed by that moment. In a similar fashion he waited just the right amount of time between the movements of this sonata to dramatize their stark contrasts, while honoring Beethoven’s demand to play the movements without interruption.
In the finale, Ohlsson demonstrated his mastery at orchestral piano playing as one imagined the woodwinds, brass, and strings tossing motives back and forth in different registers at breathtaking speed. He injected just the right humorous, light-hearted touch as he brought the fantasia quasi sonata to a breathtaking finish.
Many are aware of Franz Liszt’s rock-star public persona: his showmanship at the piano and his idolization by many. Fewer are aware of his loneliness and attempts to carve out a personal peace through his spiritual pursuits. Both sides of Liszt’s personality seem to be woven into the fabric of the monumental Sonata in B Minor. Ohlsson took his seat at the piano and, as if to prepare us for the next mammoth half-hour of unbroken music, waited a very long moment with his hands poised over the keyboard before commencing with the dark, brooding descending scales that open this work.
Once again he exploded into the fury that dominates the opening theme and, with apparently ceaseless energy at his disposal, took the audience through the majestic second theme. Then he let the music melt away into the middle section which transforms the angry opening gestures into lush, romantic layers. Demonstrating his impeccable contrapuntal technique, Ohlsson confidently negotiated the fugato that leads back to the stormy opening theme. But he saved his master strokes for the quiet reflections of an ending that left the audience frozen in a small, precious eternity of silence as he once again left his hands elevated for another long moment, as if to underscore the massiveness of this masterpiece.
Perhaps Ohlsson could do even more to make the romantic moments gooier, maybe less studied and controlled. The second theme might be a statement of Liszt’s momentary spiritual triumph and peace, so there could be a greater contrast between it and the disquiet nature of the opening. In the Liszt and Beethoven, richer, fuller use of the sustain pedal would be welcome.
Ohlsson concluded the evening with an advance bicentennial of Frédéric Chopin, celebrating it with a stunning rendition of all 24 preludes from his Opus 28, written in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier. It was splendid to re-conceive these little character pieces as one whole work that, under Ohlsson’s hands, sparkled with grand contrasts between the preludes as well as within each prelude. The optimism and ebullience of the opening C Major set up the melancholy mysteries of the A Minor, which then yielded to the vibrant energy and lightness of the G Major, and so forth. These contrasts reached their zenith at the end with the stormy G Minor melding into the gentle solace of the F Major and breaking out into the severity and passion of the closing D Minor with its three closing strokes of Fate on the low D.
While Ohlsson is to be commended for making Opus 28 work convincingly as a whole rather than 24 little pieces, he need not work so hard to place his interpretation so fiercely on the E Minor prelude, whose bass sometime just broke up under Ohlsson’s staccatos, or on the A-flat Major prelude, whose low tolling A-flats at the end were simply too abrasive for the delicate textures he wove above those loud notes.
The repeated standing ovations earned the audience two wonderful encores: the highly contrapuntal Chopin Mazurka in C# Minor, Opus 50, no. 3 and the jovial finale of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 330. Here, Ohlsson got out of the way and simply let the composers speak to the audience. They were the perfect choices to end a remarkable evening.
Walter Saul, DMA, is a composer and pianist and teaches music at Fresno Pacific University. Contact him at
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