in: Reviews

June 12, 2010

Garrick Ohlsson Brings Extraordinary Gifts to Chopin Recital at Rockport Music

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<p>Unusual stage seat vantage for BMInt publisher Lee Eiseman's photo</p>

Unusual stage seat vantage for BMInt publisher Lee Eiseman's photo

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.

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 29 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 30 years.

4 Comments

  1. From my stage seat between low A and the monumental window-wall, it was very interesting to observe one of the secrets of Garrick Ohlsen’s technique up close. In order to achieve a legato without an undue amount of pedaling he often employed finger substitution, a technique much more common among organists.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 12, 2010 at 6:54 pm

  2. The new hall appears to be wonderful…can’t wait to attend a concert there.

    On a different subject… Philadelphia Orchestra’s gain is the BSO’s loss. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been appointed Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra…(7 year contract). At 35, the Canadian Nézet-Séguin is already one of the world’s great conductors. He guest conducted the BSO 2 years ago but of course, in typical fashion, he’s not been asked back. I hate to think about who the BSO will eventually end up with.

    See detailed article re: Nézet-Séguin in today’s NY times.

    Comment by ed burke — June 13, 2010 at 2:53 pm

  3. John Ehrlich has written a delightful review of what was clearly a memorable solo recital.

    Garrick Ohlsson is an open, ever-probing musician whose curiosity about the expressive capabilities of a wide range of pianos has been well known for rather more than three decades. His stated willingness to play Bösendorfers, early-20th-c. Erards, and other concert grands by notable makers at one time caused Steinway to “excommunicate” him from their concert artists list. Mr. Ohlsson’s occasional public exploration of alternate soundscapes among post-industrialization pianos (from the 1870s on) has been truly pleasurable over these many years. He is able to draw attractive, emotionally communicative sound from instruments as diverse as Schiedmeyer grands and gorgeous modern instruments by Fazzioli and Steinway-Fabbrini. While North American audiences once had the luxury of hearing a broad range of instruments from the various national schools of piano making, this thought-provoking and often wonderfully entertaining diversity vanished nine or so decades ago. 

    It is no longer customary to credit pianos, of course. They are standard, generally anonymous furniture of the concert hall. Still, it would have been interesting to know just what Garrick Ohlsson played. Even today, that’s not too obvious or too minor a detail to  mention to the informed readers of concert reviews.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — June 14, 2010 at 1:26 pm

  4. This is what RCMF has to say:

    BY MOLLIE BYRNES
    Rockport Music will have its own piano for the first time in the 28-year history of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. The new Steinway Concert Model D will be the jewel on center stage at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. It was recently purchased, thanks to a generous donor.A small group accompanied Artistic Director David Deveau to the Steinway Factory in Astoria, New York, for the selection process. Several of us toured the factory, watching as a 19-foot-long laminated piece of wood, clad in veneer, was slowly molded to form a piano’s outer case.It takes one year to manufacture a concert grand. Steinway adheres to techniques of old world craftsmanship, even though they hold many patents and are associated with a multitude of technical innovations. The group testing the pianos with Deveau included Alpin Hong and Gilles Vonsattel (both of whom will perform at the 2010 Festival), and Jonathan Lee, a former student of Deveau’s. “Choosing a new instrument for any concert hall is a daunting, if fun, responsibility,” according to Deveau. “But selecting a piano for a hall that hasn’t yet been completed or ‘heard’ is even more daunting.” The musicians played a wide array of music, trying to assess the touch and tone in each of five grand pianos available for sale. The piano was played near the wall, away from the wall, and finally wheeled into a room with completely different acoustics. The four pianists narrowed the field to two and eventually to “the chosen one.” “We needed to imagine the acoustical properties of the Shalin Liu Performance Center and also consider what purposes our new Steinway will be used for,” Deveau said. “A relatively small concert hall where the bulk of programming is chamber music requires a different sounding piano than a 3,000-seat hall where the piano’s main function is as a concerto solo instrument.” Deveau described the new piano as “wonderfully rich.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — June 14, 2010 at 1:40 pm

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