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Ohlsson and an Easter for the Senses

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Looking affably avuncular, towering pianist Garrick Ohlsson strode onto the Jordan Hall stage for this Easter afternoon Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert, featuring befitting Bach, followed by Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, perhaps epitomizing it. I dare say most who attended were glad of their decision to forego or postpone a holiday dinner. For one thing, Ohlsson and the other superb musicians exemplified sentience without gravity.

Bach composed the WTC Book  II (preludes and fugues in every major and minor key) two decades or so after the first. It possesses mature nuance, well-delivered by Ohlsson. The prelude of BWV 882 in F-sharp Major confers a precise and delicate mood, with two main, lightly articulated themes and several portions, hinting of French style. I felt the pianist’s interpretation reverential and stately, yet approachable. His phrasing seemed more elegant than most. The 3-part fugue has a triumvirate of unique features that recur throughout—a trill, a rest of a quarter note, plus an E natural (a so-called flattened 7th, which renders it a signature fugue Bach lovers savor. Hearing it, I mused, “is Ohlsson equal to Bach, or is JSB equal to Ohlsson?” It was delicious.

The pianist went on to BWV 883, with its ornamental triplets in the prelude requiring “particular” playing—and after a false start, which he gestured with something like American Sign Language or a Gallic shrug, he dove in and played the exquisite 14th Prelude with panache, followed by the ornate 14th three-themed triple Fugue. In certain ways, the prelude provides a right-hand arioso, accompanied by a lilting left hand, with tantalizing leaps and pianistic flexibilities. The tour-de-force fugue left one breathless with admiration – for Bach and Ohlsson.

BWV 659, based on the familiar Lutheran hymn, Non komm, der Heiden Heiland, provides a signal example of the chorale preludes Bach included in organ collections; it is the first and longest in his Orgelbüchlein. In this concert, we heard the Busoni arrangement, furnished faithfully, yet pianistically fitting for an Easter afternoon.

Lending the intermission for anticipation and pondering, BSO Principal Clarinet, William Hudgins, delivered an articulate, impassioned account of how Olivier Messiaen wrote the extraordinary Quatour under starkly improbable and challenging circumstances, leaving those previously unaware of the deeply religious composer’s inspiration while imprisoned in Stalag VIIIA.  Indeed, the harshness of that setting and his faith resulted in one of the most elementally moving works of the 20th century. That its premiere took place in the bitter cold January in that POW camp led to a certain immortality is, alone, remarkable. The instrumentation—a clarinet (Hudgins), violin (Alexander Velinzon), cello (Blaise Déjardin) and piano (Ohlsson)—was pragmatic: there were three other musicians in the Stalag to play with Messaien—a violinist, a cellist and a clarinetist. Focus from the players, evident at the concert, is demanded by this long, intricate eight-movement work, which conjures every emotion. Comments by Messiaen in the program served us well.

The brief initial movement, dominated by the clarinet and piano, I, Liturgie de Cristal (Liturgy of Crystal), evokes the predawn birdsong and “the harmonious silence of Heaven,” played here with conviction. Within II, Vocalise, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du Temps (For the Angel who announces the end of Time) one wonders whether Messiaen intended la Fin to encompass termination or boundless faith, though his commentary suggests the latter. Again, piano and clarinet carried the early section of the movement, with violin and cello providing plainchant accompaniment, while later, the piano figuratively moved the seas and land, with the strings contributing eerie bird-like murmuring. The composer described the movement as the manifestation of a “strong” angel covered in a rainbow and clad in clouds, urging the listener to see the notes—something Messiaen, with his sound-color synesthesia did naturally. Hudgins, in Abime des Oiseaux (Abyss of the Birds), for clarinet alone, breathtakingly demonstrated all that instrument can convey. Then, in IV, Intermede (Interlude) Hudgins, Velinzon and Déjardin without the piano provided a brief scherzo-like break, melodies linking with the earlier and later sections. In V, Louange à l’éternité de Jésus (Praise to the eternity of Jesus) Désjardin’s cello became the Word, with nearly infinite, earnest phrases, with Ohlsson’s chorded base, ultimately trailing off in a pianissississimo.  VI, Danse de la fureur, pour les Sept Trompettes (Dance of fury, for the Seven Trumpets), rhythmic with hints of jazz, allowed all players to vamp in unison, truly creating organized fury in every possible register, ending in an exhaustive fortissississimo. Then, the mystical VII, Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du Temps (Cluster of Rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of Time) inspired and soothed—both the players and audience, by returning to some of the melodies and phrases from the second movement, engendering a sense of transmigration and creation. Finally, in VIII, Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus), focusing on the violin with piano, the composer pays musical homage to Jesus as a man, the Word embodied as flesh, here executed faithfully by Velinzon. After the last note and harmonics faded the audience waited breathless, appreciative moments, allowing emotions to linger but then roared with a unison of approbation.

Alexander Velinzon, Garrick Ohlsson, Blaise Dejardin, William R. Hudgins (Robert Torres photo)

More Messaien awaits in the “Music for the Senses” performances—April 10th, Catalogue d’Oiseaux, No 3, “le Merle Bleu, as part of a Music in Medicine series, and April 11th, when the BSO performs the massive Turangalȋla Symphonie under Andris Nelsons with pianist Yuja Wang and Cecile Lartigau on the wailing ondes Martenot. Many of us remember the 1975 BSO outing under Seiji Ozawa with the Loriod sisters (Yvonne and Jeanne) in the respective title roles.

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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