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Glimpsing the Beyond in Beethoven


Garrick Ohlsson celebrated Beethoven’s 250th anniversary and nearly a half decade as a performer last night as he closed out the BSO’s “Recitals from the World Stage,” a series of streamed concerts featuring soloists and ensembles originally scheduled to appear in person at Tanglewood. Instead, through the marvels of the internet, we have been transported around the globe to hear a parade of these virtuosos in far-flung concert venues. In this installment, Ohlsson offered one of Beethoven’s shortest and one of his longest sonatas, the Op. 78 and the monumental Hammerklavier, Op. 106, from the Caroline H. Hume Hall at San Francisco Conservatory. Watch HERE.

For this reviewer, who heard Ohlsson play all the Beethoven sonatas in a superhuman cycle of concerts in 2006 while I was working at Tanglewood, the evening was like reconnecting with an old friend―not that Mr. Ohlsson has any idea who I am, but that the musicality and ingenuity of those performances of 14 years ago are still seared in my memory, memories which made the perfect companions for these new, yet familiar, accounts.

Garrick Ohlssohn speaks from Hume Hall. [frame fropm BSO stream]

Beethoven thought his charming and demure Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp Major, Op. 78 superior to the C-sharp Minor sonata, Moonlight. As with Brahms, who established his own symphonic idiom in his second offering in the genre, yet reached perfection in his third by focusing texture, refining impact, and removing all that was not essential, Beethoven here strips away much of the formal “necessities” of the Moonlight in this gem, including an entire movement. The tight two-movement structure results in more than enough sonic space for Beethoven both to disarm us and also lead us on a journey of whimsy; the first movement’s subtle tempo shifts between subjects fulfill the expectation of first and slow movements, while the allegro vivace acts as both scherzo and finale.

Ohlsson chose to link the curtain-raising yet enigmatic adagio opening phrase with the allegro that follows a mere four bars after; the effect was organic and an indication of the interrelatedness of the thematic material. He also interpreted Beethoven’s leggiermente left hand as legato 16th notes rather than the more customary, somewhat separated reading ― a detail which added grace and if one may say, femininity to the texture, which was after all dedicated to Countess Thérèse von Brunswick. The final movement came to us as delightful and playful, like an impish child interrupting a formal dinner party.

The appetizer pleasantly digested, the main course arrived: the inimitable Hammerklavier. Ohlsson served up enthralling wonders to ear and eye over the ensuing 47 minutes. As the pianist himself said, “It’s great not because it’s long, but because of its aspiration, and achievement.”

He took the first movement at a brisk tempo but one that allowed him to do all he needed to with nuance and clarity, and without slavish allegiance to the notoriously fast tempo indication. The opening fanfare statement rang on the fermata, even though it technically is on the rest, but the effect seemingly opened a gate great to this new world. Ohlsson managed to keep the iconic rhythms vital through the transitions, so they echoed the main theme, producing an effect much like a great reading of the 7th Symphony, where the hypnotic rhythms themselves become the themes in their repetition. The development unfolded like an improvised cadenza, giving an illusion that the work was being created on the spot, and giving a welcome contrast to the unfathomably tight structure of the exposition. In its day, the sonata was considered a prime candidate for orchestration, possibly owing to its complexity and its reputation of unplayability as a piano solo. A thorough look at the piece would show why the orchestrations would fail, but Ohlsson exerted such control over the inner voices ― all of them ― that even the simplest textures (there are a few) sounded symphonic. The fact that his large hands can easily span a tenth is vital to this control.

The scherzo was awash in these (one wants to say “Schumannian”) inner voices, as well as wide left hand reaches, but all flowed effortlessly for a sometimes rollicking, sometimes mysterious ride, like the scherzo to Symphony 5. The final presto, a joke more on the eyes than the ears, with B flat shifting to A sharp and back again, got its point across through shrewd use of rhythmic instability and good humor.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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