Pianist Garrick Ohlsson played an all-Chopin recital in Rockport Music’s stunning new waterfront Shalin Liu Performance Center Friday evening, June 11. This was the first single-instrument concert in this elegant venue, and the hall was completely sold out, with several attendees occupying stage seats.
My BMInt colleague Vance Koven has written a review of the Festival’s opening night [below this one] that described in deep detail the beauty and “appropriateness” of this splendid new performance space. I also urge readers to visit the Festival’s excellent web site for intriguing in-depth statements by the hall’s architects, Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein, and from pianist David Deveau, who has served as the Festival’s Artistic Director since 1995.
Ohlsson is a commanding physical and artistic presence. His smiling acknowledgement of the applauding audience as he entered the hall gave hints of his good-naturedness, and indeed, his warm embrace of Frédéric Chopin was notable throughout his entire recital. Whether conjuring up enormous reserves of strength and sonority or giving flight to seemingly impossibly fleet strings of rapid passagework soaring from the depths of the keyboard up to its very top, then plunging again to its deep end, Ohlsson’s playing never betrayed an iota of self-consciousness or grandstanding. His fortes and fortissimi were never harsh or brash, but solid and grounding in their elemental force. His pianos and pianissimi were pellucidly gentle and caressing. His playing was astonishing clear and unmuddied by over-zealous pedaling. In short, this was as satisfying a recital of Chopin as one could hope to hear, broad in scope and edifying in the understanding Ohlsson exhibits of this amazingly diverse repertoire. It was easy to hear why this artist has become a favorite among Polish audiences and why he was awarded the opportunity to be a leading performer in this past February’s bicentenary celebrations in Warsaw and at the composer’s birth-home in Zelazowa Wola.
Throughout the evening, one was constantly grateful to hear Ohlsson’s careful limning of voicing within the musical structure, in which each hand clarifies and emphasizes important internal harmonies. This ability is an extraordinary gift, one which he shares with another great Chopin interpreter, Ivan Moravec. Yet the two pianists could not be more different in what they bring to their interpretations of this remarkable music.
With the recital’s opening Impromptu No. 2 in F-sharp Major, op. 36, one was immediately struck by Ohlsson’s superb dynamic shadings. He exhibited this control of sound volume in a beautifully planned several-measure-long crescendo, remarkable in its ever-growing sonority over a broad scale of time. After the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, op. 47, Ohlsson really began to hit his stride in the Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, op. 60. Again, listeners were afforded an opportunity to note this pianist’s fabulous control in his exquisitely voiced interpretation of the work’s middle section. One immediately appreciated Ohlsson’s structuralist approach to his interpretations and never heard anything at all arbitrary in this man’s understanding of Chopin’s well-planned architecture. I wonder if the Shalin Liu’s waterfront perch, with the open ocean visible behind the pianist, abetted this marvelous music’s conjuring of its title’s watery antecedents with the undulatory and comforting ministrations heard from the pianist’s left hand.
The two op. 27 Nocturnes next offered, No. 1 in C-sharp Minor and No. 2 in D-flat Major were played without pause between them, creating an interesting connection of harmony and ideas. That Ohlsson is a thinking person’s interpreter was ever evident, and his playing of the Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor, op. 39 only served to underscore this observation. Such a creative work, this Scherzo, with its daring harmonic excursions and episodic contrasts! It made for a stunning first-half closer, eliciting bravos and the first of several standing ovations from the audience.
The recital’s second half was given over to a hearing of the complete set of 24 Preludes, op. 28. Ohlsson was a splendid tour guide through this kaleidoscopic collection of exquisitely concise and elegant works which span the gamut of emotions within their short spaces. Chopin explores every possible key playable on a piano in these pieces, but unlike the preludes and fugues in J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which Chopin used as a model, Chopin’s harmonic plan follows the theoretical “circle-of-fifths.” This allows the 24 Preludes to be played, as Sandra Hyslop’s elegant program notes tell us: “…one after the other, with agreeable and seamless modulations from piece to piece.”
This Ohlsson did, with his deep intellect informing each short work with eloquence and richness of emotion. One was at first reminded of being presented with a beautiful platter of rich petits fours, each of different flavor and intensity, but then one encounters the great and profound Prelude No. 15 in D-flat Major, and the simile becomes untenable. Here, in this affecting deep and dark work, Ohlsson was equally deep in his projections of the melancholy and noble tragedy inherent in the music, and made this a highlight of his recital. Subsequent revelation followed upon revelation, and in the final Prelude No. 24 in D-minor, Ohlsson evinced his enormous physical strength in the work’s final three sepulchral deep Ds – each hammered home as if they were nails driven into a hardwood coffin. The audience leapt to its feet and roared its appreciation for a wonderful evening of profound music-making.
Ohlsson obliged with two impressively played dance-inspired encores — the Mazurka in C-minor op. 50, No. 3, with its wonderful nationalistic harmonic and rhythmic tang, and the familiar Waltz in E-flat Major, op. 18, performed this evening with wonderful panache which neatly summarized all of the evening’s earlier felicities of structural understanding, dynamic shading and digital dexterity. There was even an occasional intriguing hint of a distinctively Viennese lilt.
It’s evident why Ohlsson is a favorite of the Rockport Music Festival. His focus is unstinting, his self-assurance complete, betraying no trace of weakness or fear. How appropriate that he should be the person to first play a solo recital within its splendid new hall’s elegant walls.
Leaving the post-concert reception, a colleague noted how wonderful it was to have a brilliant new recital hall built in these times of fiscal challenges and rampant pop-culture mediocrity. How true! Boston – a beautiful new temple of chamber music awaits your patronage. You’ll not be disappointed.