Jeremy Reynolds – Artist Recital Series
With a thunderous final arpeggio pianist Garrick Ohlsson leapt from the keyboard to claim his accolades before the notes had finished reverberating through the hall. The deservedly wild enthusiasm of his listeners prompted Ohlsson to give not one but three encores to complete last Tuesday night’s installment of the Artist Recital Series, which featured works for solo piano by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Alexander Scriabin in Finney Chapel.
Ohlsson is a native of White Plains, New York, and he remains the only American pianist to have won the prestigious International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Widely acknowledged as an expert on the Polish composer’s music, Ohlsson also regularly performs works from all periods of the Western art music canon, from Haydn and Mozart to pieces that he commissioned for himself in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The pianist began his Oberlin recital with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, a work from the composer’s late period that features a wealth of diverse thematic material. From powerful, virtuosic arpeggios to reverent, hushed chorales, Ohlsson carefully shaped each voice within the sonic texture to express his abundantly nuanced interpretation of the German master’s music. With so much attention to detail, however, he failed to present the work cohesively, as his focus on the independent motifs sacrificed the “bigger picture” of the piece’s emotional trajectory.
Conversely, Ohlsson’s performance of Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, Der Wanderer, paid careful homage to the composition’s cyclic structure. After introducing the energetic first theme with a fiery burst of technical prowess, Ohlsson successfully endeavored to recapture that same vigor each time the opening melody recurred. Schubert based the sonata on a song of his by the same title; the constant reprisal of the opening gesture represents the wanderer’s search for the familiarity of home throughout the four movements, each of which transitions smoothly into the next. As in the Beethoven, however, Ohlsson occasionally lost sight of the overall impact of the fantasy. His constant “rubati” (variation of tempi for musical effect) sometimes impeded the seamless flow of Der Wanderer.
Post intermission, however, the artist settled into his niche and demonstrated just why his playing is spoken of so highly. Ohlsson reclaimed the stage with a enchantingly languorous performance of Scriabin’s musical daydream, Désir, before standing to personally introduce his audience to the Russian composer’s background. Often punctuating his remarks with a delightfully dry wit, Ohlsson explained in his soft voice that Scriabin’s compositional style was strongly influenced by a certain Polish pianist, and that 2015 marks the centenary of Scriabin’s death.
The pianist discussed how the first Scriabin sonata on the program (No. 10, which happens to be the composer’s last) reflects the Beethoven sonata with which Ohlsson began the concert. “Oddly enough, they both seem to be obsessed with trills…” he said. “Beethoven probably wouldn’t have liked [Scriabin’s sonata] very much. But then, great composers generally don’t like each other very much,” he added with a chuckle.
The tenth sonata comprises a single movement during which trills occur almost constantly. Here, Olssohn created a vast spectrum of emotional characters from Scriabin’s nervously agitated tremolos and triumphant, soaring melodies. The pianist delivered the sinuous scalar passages and passionate blooms of color with complete mastery of the keyboard and the music. Though he performed the rest of the program from memory, Ohlsson chose to read this sonata from a score, perhaps on account of the meticulous detail with which Scriabin annotated his music. According to the evening’s program notes by Peter Laki, “One way to approach this piece is to read Scriabin’s unusual performance instructions, given in French, which look like a running commentary on the entire work.” With directions as varied as “with profound, veiled ardor” to “radiant voluptuousness” to “trembling, winged,” Ohlsson created an entire microcosm of sentiment through the tenth sonata — this work was the unequivocal highlight of the evening.
The remainder of the program consisted of three shorter works followed by the fifth sonata. Ohlsson delivered each of miniatures with his customarily polished energy before diving into the final sonata with an sharp BANG! As he had throughout the evening, Ohlsson differentiated between contrasting motifs with clear expression, alternating between the rhythmic fury of the opening gesture and the gentle impressionism of the second theme with confident ease. More than once his body language shifted suddenly from purposefully virtuosic as he swept up and down the range of the keyboard to quietly introverted — he barely seemed to breathe as he painstakingly voiced each chord and motif.
As Ohlsson revved up his dynamic energy for the close of the piece, his gestures became increasingly flamboyant until he abruptly jumped from the piano bench, grinning mischievously, just before the music sounded as though might resolve. He went on to surprise his enraptured audience with three of Scriabin’s short etudes before exiting the stage to still thunderous applause, marking perhaps the most successful concert in the Artist Recital Series this season. Bang on a Can All-Stars will deliver the next ARS concert on February 28th, though they may find Mr. Ohlsson’s program a tough act to follow.