Portland Piano International recital review: Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson performed at Newmark Theatre.

Garrick Ohlsson performed at Newmark Theatre.


Isn’t Classic all about balance, restraint, discipline, and precision? Isn’t Romantic all about eccentricity, abandon, emotion, and drama? How can one possibly show how the other is done?

In the final recital of this year’s Portland Piano International season, at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, Garrick Ohlsson showed us how it’s done in a program of quintessentially Romantic works – a selection of Charles Griffes tone paintings, two Alexander Scriabin sonatas, and Frederic Chopin’s third and last sonata.

True enough, those who crave eccentricity and abandon most of all were bound to be left somewhat hungry by Ohlsson’s straightforward and controlled approach. But that control, and the reassuring precision that went with it, was generously leavened by a fine sense of expression and overall shape that opened a window to the music’s emotional life-breath. His Classic approach created a certain perspective: that elusive and delightful illusion of the composer speaking for himself.

That perspective was most welcome in the works by Griffes – an American composer from a century ago who died far too young (at 35 during the post-WWI influenza pandemic), and while still following in the footsteps of his impressionist model Claude Debussy. If the forms seemed simple and the harmony derivative, remember that when Debussy was the same age, the vast majority of his accumulated works consisted either of ably constructed imitations of early idols such as Jules Massenet or struggles to come to terms with the music of Richard Wagner. Like Debussy, Griffes is easily overwhelmed by excessively Romantic performance practices. The Lake at Evening, Night Winds, The Fountain of the Acqua Paola, The White Peacock, and especially the Scherzo op. 6 no. 3 are not easy works to play, but Ohlsson’s classic hands easily conjured up the exotic worlds hinted at in the titles and let us lose ourselves in them without drawing attention to himself. The ending of The White Peacock was a fine example. Its three repeated gestures are classic, but Griffes reversed the classic harmonic order – question, then answer – and Ohlsson’s understated fadeout filled the hall with mystery.

Superlative Scriabin

His approach was not quite as successful in Scriabin’s third piano Sonata, especially the first movement, marked “Drammatico.” Scriabin was a supreme egotist, even more so than Wagner, and his music seems to demand an equally powerful performing persona to stand up to him and make him shine at his best. These earlier works may have a Chopinesque sound, but they are deceptive that way – the personality behind them could not be more different. Still, there were welcome payoffs, such as Ohlsson’s exquisite sense of color and emphasis in the languid slow movement — he seemed to achieve perfection — and his near-miraculous clarity in the fiendish and fiendishly difficult finale.

Don’t misunderstand – Ohlsson is as powerful as they come when he wants to be, as his next selection proved. And he is still, at 66, adding new repertory. When he came on after intermission, he explained he had just learned the announced selection, Scriabin’s thorny seventh Sonata, and had hoped to premiere it only a few weeks earlier. However, he didn’t feel it was ready either for that recital or this one, so instead we were treated to Scriabin’s fifth Sonata. This showed respect for his audience, and there was no need for anyone to be disappointed; the fifth is hardly easier or less spectacular. While it may lack the fully developed harmonic palette characteristic of Scriabin’s late work, it is far down the road from the third Sonata, and there is very little obvious Chopin in it.

Those who didn’t know the work were no doubt shocked by the thunderously dissonant opening and its quick disappearance in a keyboard-spanning whirlwind. Immediately afterwards came the tenderest touches imaginable. And so the kaleidoscope turned, and the full range of Ohlsson’s technique, as we had heard up to now, shone in poetic, brilliant, and yet always finely judged display. Nowhere was his judgement finer than when he finally unleashed full power in the swooping lines and clarion fanfares marked “impetuoso” (to the latter is added the direction “like trumpets”). This is over the top of a manic context in which the right hand ricochets from chord to chord with no chance of help from a left hand that is fully engaged with its own difficulties. The tempo indications give a pretty good idea: “Presto… Presto, tumultuous and ecstatic… Prestissimo… vertiginous and furious…” not to mention countless more markings of “impetuoso” throughout. Not that there aren’t more tender breathers, and easier assorted bits, pieces and grotesqueries. But I’ve heard a few live performances of this work over the years, and never have I heard one where the pianist’s controlled precision exerted nearly so tight a grip on the composer’s madness, and the other way around too, like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty going over Reichenbach Falls locked in deadly embrace. Only on the very last page, where the music seems to shoot right off the top of the keyboard, did Ohlsson allow the cataclysm to overcome him at all. By that time we were all in it with him; it whirled him right around to face us and we roared our enthusiasm!

Chopin Champion

And there was plenty more where that came from. After the shortest of breaks, he came out and gave a masterly performance of one of Chopin’s most difficult extended works, his third and last piano Sonata. Ohlsson has a reputation as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Chopin, and it was easy to hear why. His overall approach may have been classic, even restrained, but he displayed a full range of volume and touch, melodies sang whether high, low or hiding shyly in the middle, and each passing mood was expressed with poetic phrasing, with flexible tempi, and with exuberant bursts of power such as the final chords of the first movement. Listening to him play, it was utterly clear how Chopin’s roots went back to Bach and Mozart rather than Beethoven. My only slight disappointment was that he chose not to repeat the exposition in this, the most classic of Chopin’s few essays in sonata form. There’s a lot of material here; we are a long way from the composer’s early melody and accompaniment model, and a second hearing of the premise of the plot would have been welcome.

The mastery continued in the quicksilver scherzo and intimately tuneful slow movement. The latter begins unexpectedly with a portentous outburst in octaves, and here Ohlsson created an inspired bridge, starting off in the exact same tempo as the dramatic octaves which predictably yet no less fittingly end the scherzo. But it soon settles into a classic Chopin melodic treatment, as if the composer were saying, I may have learned some new tricks but I’m still master of the old. After a rather pouty monologue, it wanders off into another, even broader tune, which spins out almost into a hypnotic trance. Just on the threshold of oblivion, it catches itself on a murmuring dissonance and takes up the pouty monologue again, which leads back to the first tune through a drawn-out phrase of shifting harmonic colors, and here Ohlsson simply surpassed himself. I could go into the carefully judged gradations of touch and volume which made this transition… again, perfection is the word that comes to mind. But magic wasn’t made to be explained.

As he did with fast tempi throughout the concert, Ohlsson launched himself into the relentless finale with exactly the right momentum for dramatic effect, seemingly without risking overpowering his always formidable precision. And yet I know from personal experience that this movement is damn hard work, way more than the others, and when the theme returned with a vengeance at the last, with the left hand moving twice as fast as at the beginning, I expected him to back off on the tempo just like nearly everybody else on record. Well, he did back off, very slightly, but so little that he put my jaded expectations to shame. (I’ve since learned that he can span an octave plus a fifth with his left hand, an enormous reach which must help tremendously with this trick.) Neither energy nor precision faltered in the least, and the excitement kept building as he powered through to the final, exuberantly triumphant bang. People almost literally leapt from their seats in a noisy, well-deserved ovation.

After we’d worn ourselves out a bit, Ohlsson calmed us down with two warhorses of the Chopin encore repertory. I’ve heard more sparkle in the hoary old “Minute Waltz,” but his plaintive C# minor Waltz (op. 64 no. 2), while only hinting at the dramatic accelerations typical of Romantic interpretations, was exquisite in every detail. Warhorse it may be, but I was moved nonetheless. It was one final demonstration for the day why Garrick Ohlsson is a classic, not only in his approach to piano literature, but in his consummate ability and artistry.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer, who would marry Chopin’s third piano Sonata if it would have him.

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