Ohlsson brings wide range of expression to Russian program

Tue Jan 27, 2015 at 7:53 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Garrick Ohlsson performed a program of Russian music Sunday at Symphony Center.
Garrick Ohlsson performed a program of Russian music Sunday at Symphony Center.

The all-Russian program of Garrick Ohlsson’s Sunday afternoon solo recital at Symphony Center featured a lot of what might be called “three-hand” music—works in which three distinct melodies or patterns are distributed between the pianist’s two hands. Ohlsson’s most consistent artistic feat in this concert was the absolute clarity with which he managed to project each individual line, while retaining a full, rich tone.

The first half of the program began and ended with two youthful sets of four works each by Prokofiev. The opening set was his Four Pieces, Opus 4. These are character pieces, each appended with descriptive titles, and the only fault in Ohlsson’s tasteful performances was a tendency to undercharacterize. The second piece, “Ardor”, lacked the forward sweep that its title suggests. Likewise, Ohlsson’s rendition of “Suggestion diabolique”, was strong in the piece’s impish scampering, but lacked the necessary ferocity at the many moments when Prokofiev calls for fortissimo accents. “Despair,” came off best. A repeated chromatic three-note figure runs through the piece, and Ohlsson thoughtfully wove it in and out of the background, as other musical figures accumulated above and below it.

There was more abandon in Ohlsson’s performance of the Four Etudes, Opus 2. He never engaged in the raw, brutal pounding one often associates with Prokofiev’s more violent passages, but his performance of the third etude in particular showed that he could generate the resonant bass sonorities that the darker patches of this repertoire require, without ever letting his tone turn ugly.

In between the two Prokofiev sets was the most substantial piece of the first half: Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli. The Corelli theme is a folia, a dance similar to a sarabande, but Ohlsson’s rendering of the theme was anything but dance-like. He played it at a very slow basic tempo and with an austere, almost hymnal tone, but much expressive flexibility.

This was characteristic of Ohlsson’s approach to the variations. He did not choose one basic mood and constant pulse for each variation, relying on the differences between variations to give the piece character. Instead, he highlighted very specific events within each variation, so that each had a poetic structure of its own, and he employed a myriad of coloristic effects of touch and pedaling to bring these out. The result was an uncommonly rich moment-to-moment experience of a piece that can often otherwise feel quite episodic.

If Ohlsson’s careful calibrations in the first half suggested that the emotional temperature of the afternoon might remain cool, then this impression was belied by the heated second half, which was entirely devoted to Scriabin. The main pieces of this half were two of Scriabin’s piano sonatas: No. 7 (known as “White Mass”) and No. 5 (his Opus 53). Each sonata was preceded by a miniature—Désir before Sonata No. 7 and Fragilité before Sonata No. 5—with only a brief pause in between, so that the miniatures served as preludes of sorts.

As a palate cleanser between the sonatas, Ohlsson played two of the etudes from Scriabin’s Opus 8: No. 11 in B-flat minor and No. 10 in D-flat major. Scriabin’s style in these early works is reminiscent of Chopin, and Ohlsson’s treatment of them recalled his acclaimed prowess in that composer’s work. These two selections are among the more lyrical pieces in the collection, and Ohlsson played them with nocturne-like introspection.

Ohlsson’s performance of the two sonatas retained the razor-sharp precision and highly varied tone palette he had displayed throughout, which is especially noteworthy in Scriabin, whose music can easily sound murky or shapeless. Ohlsson projected every swoon and shudder of the “White Mass” Sonata with a sense of physical immediacy.

But it was his performance of the Piano Sonata No. 5 that featured his most passionate and arresting playing all afternoon, with each fresh wave of rising sequences building to a powerful climax, and then subsiding again. Ohlsson leapt to his feet as he played the final flourish of the piece, and the audience soon followed by leaping to theirs to applaud him.

As encores, Ohlsson played three more etudes by Scriabin: Opus 2, No. 1 in C-sharp minor, which the pianist informed the audience was written when the composer was fifteen years old; a bravura performance of the old Horowitz favorite Opus 8, No. 12 in D-sharp minor; and finally, a performance of Opus 42, No. 3 in F-sharp major, floated as delicately as the fluttering of wings.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment