March 15, 2013
Garrick Ohlsson’s latest release features solo piano works from composers who have meant much to him personally, hence the title Close Connections. Ohlsson’s dedication to these inidividuals is commendable: It is the music that must be important to him, for most of these selections are not chosen to provide immediate appeal. Four of the six are thorny, out-of-fashion, modernist exercises. These pieces can be as challenging to the listener as the pianist, but some of them nevertheless reward repeated listening.
Triptych by Louis Weingarden (1943-1989) opens the set. It arrives at the door like bad news from the front, with its grist for development plopped down starkly at the outset. There are three movements that last nearly 22 minutes. Its central movement, a so-called Vivace, never really gets off the ground, but the piece as a whole has ample opportunities to show off Ohlsson’s impeccable clarity and virtuosity, and plenty of complex gestures that will make musicologists long for a score to analyze.
The glory of this release is Shall We Dance by Robert Helps (1928-2001), a somewhat bitter but highly nostalgic quasi-waltz. According to Ohlsson, “It reminds me of the most sophisticated cabaret music imaginable. Picture a smoke-filled room in thrall to a pianist of casual genius … .” Ohlsson’s characterization of it as “charming, brilliant and slightly enigmatic” fits the music perfectly, but I must say that his performance did not live up to his billing. Without the score, I cannot say how true he was to the composer’s intentions, or even if the score was in 3/4 time, but the experience of listening to it is highly frustrating to me, since Ohlsson inexplicably pauses before many of the anticipated downbeats, making the work sound as if it were in 13/16 time, with a 16th-note rest before every bar. Listen to the excerpt and decide for yourself what he’s up to.
The Passacaglia of Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972) sports an untelligible 12-tone theme that’s pointless to try to follow without a score, but it does build to some impressive climaxes that put Ohlsson’s skills into the best light. William Hibbard’s (1939-1989) Handiwork, is even more technically demanding, and most hard-core modernist in style. Much of it sounds like a chain of icicles collapsing during an earthquake.
The final work, a sonata written in 1953 by Oldřich Korte (b. 1926), a Czech neoclassicist, is perhaps, along with the Helps, the easiest-to-follow piece in the collection. It’s also the cheeriest, even though its central section has a funeral march, and is the most melodic. Unfortunately, as in the Helps, Ohlsson’s occasional neglect of rhythmic regularity at inappropriate moments doesn’t do complete justice to this attractive composition.
Recommended, for the Helps and Korte.