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Archive for January, 2015

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

Apparently, Scriabin is not good box office. After his Chicago recital this afternoon, Garrick Ohlsson said that, to celebrate the centenary of his death, he had offered a couple of all-Scriabin programs to a number of concert halls, but most had requested he include other composers in the mix. Since he played Prokofiev and Rachmaninov in the first half, Symphony Center was evidently one of them, which might explain why the Chicago program manager fidgeted a little uncomfortably at Ohlsson’s disclosure. The concert managers’ caution may have been justified, however, because I would have expected a pianist as distinguished as Ohlsson, after all the only American ever to win first prize in the Chopin competition albeit 45 years ago, to fill more seats. It’s a shame because the second half devoted to Scriabin’s music contained by far the most ravishing playing of the afternoon.

Ohlsson’s other confession during the post-concert reception was that he had been unwell at the end of last year, and so had lost vital preparation time for this recital. The most obvious consequence was that he had not memorized most of the first-half music, surprisingly even the Rachmaninov Corelli Variations, which he recorded only a few years ago. It might also have explained why much of his playing seemed rather cautious. I was originally going to describe it as tentative, but I don’t think that’s correct. Ohlsson doesn’t lack either confidence or technique, but I think he prefers to play within his considerable abilities, exuding authority and poise rather than visceral excitement, even when playing something as frenzied as Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique, a favorite encore of many pianists (I heard Kissin pulverize it a few years ago – Ohlsson was just as exciting without feeling the need to destroy the piano). The Suggestion was pretty fast and I suspect he will speed up the remaining Prokofiev works when they are more under his fingers.

The Prokofiev pieces, his Op. 2 and Op. 4 collections, were teenage compositions where he was still struggling to find his voice while simultaneously trying to shock his teachers. The most evocative, Reminiscence, seemed an astringent pre-echo of the great slow movements of the war sonatas. The Rachmaninov, on the other hand, is a fully mature work. Ohlsson played the opening theme with a touching affection. It was also daringly slow, which I found compelling until I realized that he wasn’t going to speed up for the subsequent variations. Usually, the chromatic lyrical variations at the center form an oasis of calm between the more tempestuous sections, but the storms were less than hurricane force this time. This seems to be his conception of the piece, not a result of inadequate rehearsal, because the tempi of his recording on iTunes are much the same.

I had no such reservations in the second half devoted to Scriabin. Ohlsson seems to have a natural affinity for the composer, reveling in the delicate sonorities of the two miniatures, Désir and Fragilité, that he chose as exquisite preludes to two of his one-movement sonatas. The first was the seventh sonata, the White Mass, which evokes for me a volcano that is threatening to erupt. The music is suffused with subterranean rumblings, interrupted by occasional outbursts as if rocks are hurled into the air before falling back into a seething cauldron of trills and pulsing chords. It appears randomly constructed, but the sense of tension is palpable throughout, even though, in the end, the music subsides back into nothing. This was early in Scriabin’s apocalyptic phase, so the music presumably represents the groaning of a world approaching the end of time.

The fifth sonata is more highly structured, but the various sections emerge from each other with great expressive freedom. Ruminative passages become gradually more agitated before being swept up by faster passages of leaping chords that build to exultant climaxes, before subsiding back so that the whole process can be repeated. It is surely one of Scriabin’s greatest works, and it brought out easily the best playing of the afternoon. Whether in the languid opening section or the exhilarating perorations, he produced a dazzling array of colors and textures, while keeping a sense of structural coherence and momentum. This is no easy task. Richter told Bruno Monsaingeon that it was the most difficult piece he had played.

This recital revealed for me a surprising side to Garrick Ohlsson’s playing that I should have known. If you look at his discography, he has naturally concentrated on the conventional repertoire, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninov and, of course, Chopin. He has recorded the Debussy Études, but not much else from France. And yet, he is a master of pianistic color in impressionistic music, caressing the piano to produce the most fragile delicate textures with great subtlety and warmth. I was unaware of his affection for Scriabin, although he has recorded quite a lot of his music, and would have loved to sit through an afternoon bathed in the sound of him playing Scriabin’s more reflective miniatures – if the Chicago management had let me.

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