Review: Garrick Ohlsson, piano, at UW World Series
By Melinda Bargreen
Piano phenomena come and go – and Garrick Ohlsson just keeps on getting better.
Ever since he won the Chopin International Piano Competition back in 1970, Ohlsson has been at the top of the keyboard world, and his most recent trip to Meany Theater proved that he has become even more interesting an artist as the years go by. His technical prowess is awe-inspiring, but not just for the glittering speed at which he can toss off phrase after phrase of perfectly articulated runs and arpeggios.
Ohlsson also is a colorist of rare finesse, drawing a rich array of sounds from the piano. He can create a warmly hushed, almost golden sound in pianissimo passages where you’d think the piano keys had been not struck, but breathed upon. Somehow there is no sense of percussive articulation, but just notes that emerge so delicately and so soft-focused that it is a surprise to realize they came from the keyboard.
Not for Ohlsson is the typical format of a recital, offering first a shorter hors d’oeuvre from an earlier era – perhaps some Mozart, for instance. The first half of his Jan. 15 recital looked like the last half of most recitals: two big, important works full of substance and depth. The opener was Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 (Op. 109), which emerged with delightful nuances in the opening movement, and went on to a tremendously varied performance: vivid declamatory passages, a hymn-like Adagio espressivo, and a Prestissimo movement that took this title quite literally.
Schubert’s famous “Wanderer” Fantasy followed, boldly delineated from the emphatic opening statement to the hair-raising Presto and the equally phenomenal final Allegro.
The familiar Beethoven and Schubert were followed by three seldom-programmed Griffes pieces, displaying that American composer in full Debussy/Ravel mode with brilliantly colored Impressionist effects. The “Fountain of Aqua Paola” was succeeded by the “Scherzo” (Op. 6, No. 1) and finally by the atmospheric, enigmatic “The White Peacock.” (The first and last of these three pieces are from Griffes’ exotic “Roman Sketches.) Here Ohlsson drew an array of misty and colorfully evocative effects from the keyboard, particularly in the “Fountain” movement (which recalls Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau”).
Of course, with Ohlsson you always expect some Chopin, and he did not disappoint – choosing the big Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor for the finale of the program. He has the technique to toss off the “big moment” gestures with an alacrity that continues to amaze the listener, but Ohlsson also devotes a great deal of energy to illuminating interior voices and making the melodies sing out. It was a vivid, highly varied performance, and the Finale was taken at a speed and energy that inspired a lengthy ovation.
The two encores, both familiar Chopin waltzes, found Ohlsson at his most entertaining, with the tempi pulled like taffy as he decided to stretch one section out to languorous length … and then hit the accelerator in another segment. It was a good reminder that the verb “to play” can be interpreted two ways; Ohlsson was clearly playing with the scores, much to the enjoyment of the audience. The two encores were the grandiose Waltz in E-Flat Major of Op. 18, and the shorter, more bittersweet Waltz in C-Sharp Minor of Op. 64 (No. 2). Ohlsson clearly identified his encores from the stage, helpfully supplying the opus numbers. This is a pianist who thinks of everything.
Ohlsson has said that Meany Theater is one of his favorite recital venues; clearly that affection works both ways, because a large and responsive audience showed up to hear and cheer him. May he return soon and often.