Ohlsson’s “fantasy” program takes flight at Ravinia

Tue Jul 01, 2014 at 10:29 am

By Tim Sawyier

Garrick Ohlsson performed music of Beethoven Schubert, Smetana and Griffes Monday night at Ravinia.
Garrick Ohlsson performed music of Beethoven, Schubert, Smetana and Griffes Monday night at Ravinia.

Garrick Ohlsson returned to the Ravinia Festival for the 17th time Monday night in a program billed as “Flight of Fantasy.” The celebrated American pianist opened his recital in Ravinia’s Martin Theater with Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109.

While technically in three movements, Op. 109 really falls into two: the more extroverted compact first two, and the protracted, more introspective third (a theme and variations).

Ohlsson brought out this overarching structure masterfully. In the opening movement he maintained thoughtful voicing throughout, and especially notable was the contrast he achieved between thunderous bass chords and delicate treble passages. In Beethoven’s late works, especially, there is the question of how to navigate the juxtaposition of angular passages with more lyrical ones. Ohlsson did so with impeccable taste, employing forceful fortissimos that never turned abrasive and singing pianissimos that were models of clarity.

The one literal fantasy on the program, was Schubert’s 1822 “Wanderer” Fantasy in C Major. The continuous work is generally recognized as the most technically demanding solo piano work by Schubert, who allegedly said, “The Devil may play it!” frustrated by his own inability to do so.

No such infernal powers would seem to have been necessary for Ohlsson however. From the martial opening C Major chords he effortlessly wove through the pyrotechnics of the opening section, all the while highlighting the important moments in Schubert’s frequently ambiguous harmonies. The pomp, flourishes, and arpeggios can disguise Schubert’s gradual yet artful move away from the safe home key to that of the lamenting Adagio in C-sharp minor—an incredible harmonic distance from C Major. In Ohlsson’s performance, however, knowledge of the circle of fifths or the resolution of augmented sixth chords was unnecessary—the strikingly quiet misterioso quality he created indicated a long distance had been traversed from the opening bars.

The only lull in the evening came after intermission when Ohlsson played four brief pieces by Charles Tomlinson Griffes. The first three of these had explicit programmatic titles—most notably The White Peacock. Though deftly and sensitively played, despite their detailed programs, they still sounded like abandoned sketches for Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, with the emphasis on abandoned. Ironically, the concluding piece had the most generic name—Scherzo, Op. 6, no. 3—but by far the most character, due to Ohlsson’s virtuosity.

The recital ended with four selections from Smetana’s second book of Czech Dances. In this performance Ohlsson demonstrated why he is still the only American to date to win the prestigious Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Smetana, like Chopin, was a composer trying to reconcile two musical aesthetics—that of his homeland with that of the Western European establishment.

Ohlsson showed his innate understanding of the lilt, rubato, and humor of music rooted in Eastern European folk traditions in these works, capping off the evening with a Smetana Furiante as an encore.

Tim Sawyier is an oboist and a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music. He is currently completing his MA in European history at the University in Chicago, with a thesis on the early case histories of Sigmund Freud. He serves as principal oboe of the Dubuque (Iowa) Symphony Orchestra, and is a freelance musician in Chicago.

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