For the past two decades, pianist Murray Perahia has dealt with a series of debilitating, and no doubt highly frustrating, hand injuries, including a recent setback. Thus, it was pinch-hitter Garrick Ohlsson who took the stage at Symphony Hall Sunday afternoon, November 14, for Perahia’s Celebrity Series recital. Quite the formidable pinch-hitter! At 6’ 4” and some 260 pounds, Ohlsson is a bear of a man. With Big Papian dimensions and Rachmaninoffian paws (a span of a 13th in his left and a 12th in his right), this performer was the physical antithesis of the sole composer on the program, Frédéric Chopin (under 5’ 7”, 100 pounds). Strange bedfellows. In this bicentennial year of Chopin’s birth, Ohlsson is presenting a series of these all-Frédéric events.
Ambling onstage with a nimbleness that belied his size, Ohlsson’s deliberate and composed musical demeanor was evident before he played a single note. Gathering himself, he gently eased into an unhurried and extremely relaxed, fluid rendition of the Nocturne in F Major, Opus 15, No. 1. His vast dynamic range was also soon apparent as the piece veered rapidly from its sweet beginnings to tempestuous middle section to sedate conclusion. A handful of the Opus 25 études followed: the shimmery, impressionistic No. 1; the gossamer, rocking No. 2 (“Lullaby”) ; the sour, tangy, plucky horseback ride of No. 5; blustery No. 6, and moody No. 7. In all, Ohlsson’s default approach was to caress and softly stroke the piano; the big Steinway purred in response. His realizations were strikingly gentle, genteel, Chopinesque; the lucidity of his tone was, ironically enough, quite reminiscent of Murray Perahia’s. Phrases were beautifully wrought, and his carefully accentuated, clear voicing had a way of guiding the listener’s ear to the melody line through a blizzard of notes. Now, these études are by no means pieces of cake, but Ohlsson did a virtual cakewalk through this highly demanding material. He played with a startling and deceptive sense of ease and aplomb that made the Steinway appear almost diminutive and these challenging works mere child’s play. This performance was a classic example of “the art that conceals art.” As with all truly gifted musicians, Ohlsson transcended mere technique and hovered well above it in the vast interpretive realm. I’d say he’s more than ready for some meta-études.
And then came the Polonaise in f-sharp minor, Opus 44. So much for gently stroking the big old Steinway. Ohlsson attacked this dark, meaty, proudly menacing piece to the point where one worried that the instrument would end up as kindling. As the piano growled, Garrick’s complexion became markedly more florid. This was a muscular and highly passionate rendering marred briefly by one mini-splat in the right hand, just to show that he’s human.
The Mazurka in a minor, Opus 17, No. 4 and Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Opus 20 rounded out the eclectic first half. Surprisingly, given its Polish roots, the mazurka seemed evocative of nothing more than a rainy day in Paris. Polish folk music filtered through a polished Parisian lens, apparently. The Scherzo was crackling, electrifying, and perhaps a tad muddy at times.
The second half opened with a relatively early and lesser-known work, Variations brillantes in B-flat major on “Je vends des scapulaires” from Hérold’s Ludovic. Written in homage to the operatic composer Louis Hérold following his premature death just shy of age 42, this piece is based on one of Hérold’s operatic themes. This source material is somewhat akin to salon music, and, as such, strikes one as decidedly un-Chopinesque. In this composer’s capable hands, however, it’s quickly transmogrified into a lighthearted, frothy, virtuosic romp, tossed off with unfettered panache by Ohlsson.
The final selection, Sonata No. 3 in b minor, Opus 58, is a wide-ranging, large-scale work. Ohlsson’s fingers skittered lightly across the keyboard in the Scherzo; things got a tad monchromatic and dragged ever so slightly in the too-long Largo, and then the train took off from the station in the Finale. Garrick swept us away in a torrent of octaves and runs as his complexion again ranged high into the florid zone. He rewarded our sustained standing ovation with three encores: the dark yet sprightly Mazurka in e minor, Opus 17, No. 2; the pyrotechnical extravaganza Étude in C minor, Opus 10, No. 12 (“Revolutionary”), and Polonaise in A-flat Major, Opus 53 (“Heroic”), the antithetical companion piece to the earlier Polonaise in f-sharp minor, Opus 44 (to paraphrase the performer, who thoughtfully introduced each encore, complete with opus numbers). Ohlsson let ’er rip in this final selection of the afternoon, ending his performance on a proverbial (and literal) high note.
Though there were more than likely quite a few in the audience who were disappointed at once again being deprived of the dulcet tones of Murray Perahia, Garrick Ohlsson certainly proved to be a more than worthy replacement. Chopin, ever the thoughtful composer, no doubt would have approved of Ohlsson’s passionately fastidious re-creations.