May 11, 2013

Garrick Ohlsson: Master of Musical Brushstrokes

Chamber Music San Francisco
By Ken Iisaka

Garrick OhlssonGarrick Ohlsson is undeniably one of the titans of the piano world. Since his victory at the 1970 International Chopin Piano Competition, he has established himself not just as one of the greatest Chopin interpreters, but also as a versatile artist, performing works ranging from the classical repertoire to modern compositions. With Maurizio Pollini winning the same competition in 1960, Martha Argerich in 1965, and Krystian Zimerman in 1975, he is in a fine company.

Over the weekend, ardent audiences had the pleasure of hearing Ohlsson perform in Walnut Creek, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, presented by Chamber Music San Francisco. I was fortunate to attend the Walnut Creek performance on Saturday.

Perhaps because of Ohlsson’s imposing frame, at 6'4", he had more than ample power at disposal, but what really differentiated him from many of the performers today is the level of refinement, confidence, and maturity shown throughout the program.

Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata No. 15, Op. 28, and Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Op. 15/D. 760, which comprised the first half of the program, made for an interesting study in how music was being dramatically transformed in the earliest part of the 19th century in Vienna. Although the two pieces are separated by over 20 years, it was interesting, and perhaps humorously ironic, to note that Beethoven’s sonata seemed more Romantic, while the later Schubert was more “classical.” A program note stated: “Beethoven [was] in a Schubertian mood, Schubert feeling Beethovenish,” and, true enough, the Beethoven was lyrical while the Schubert was more driven, employing percussive chords and extravagant arpeggios.

Ohlsson wove the works together through his masterful ability to let the music unfold itself into a vast landscape.

Ohlsson wove the works together through his masterful ability to let the music unfold itself into a vast landscape, viewed at a confident, regal tempo. There was no sense of rush: The majestic river of music flowed steadily, while carving an indelible mark on the landscape and on our hearts. As the journey progressed, we were surrounded with an orchestra-like sonority, depicting rich colors and moods. The middle section of the otherwise somber second movement of the Beethoven Sonata was full of humor, but never coarse or absurd, while the fugato in the last movement of the Schubert was radiant, with a vast dynamic range that somehow never sounded harsh. Ohlsson proved to be a grand master of brushstrokes, from bold to delicate, all with vibrant colors.

After the intermission, Ohlsson gave us a glimpse into the world of Charles Griffes, an American Impressionist composer who was greatly influenced by Debussy and Scriabin. The first piece, “Night Wind” from Three Tone Pictures, Op. 5, borrowing heavily from Debussy, depicted a haunting, windy, night scene. The “Barcarolle” from Fantasy Pieces, Op. 6, and “The White Peacock” from Roman Sketches, Op. 7, were richly perfumed, perhaps foretelling the exoticism of Messiaen and Sorabji.

With a steady, deliberate tempo, Ohlsson brought out rich inner details that are often neglected in rushed interpretations.

Ohlsson showed the best of himself in the last part of the program, consisting of Chopin’s Fantasy, Op. 49, and Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31. In both, the artist remained firmly anchored to a granite monolith, and not a moment was excessively sentimental or overly romanticized. With a steady, deliberate tempo, Ohlsson brought out rich inner details that are often neglected in rushed interpretations. Under his hands, the lyrical lines possessed a level of freedom, with distinct colors that helped guide the audience through the unfolding stories with a firm yet gentle touch. It was both fresh and familiar at the same time.

As encores, Ohlsson rewarded the audience with a delicate, intimate reading of Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, and a passionate, magnificent, and entirely dynamic rendition of his “Revolutionary” Etude, Op. 10, No. 12.

Ken Iisaka is a North Bay pianist.