IN: Reviews

Dazzling Fingerwork Plus Musical Riches

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The 2024 Rockport Chamber Music Festival commenced on Friday at the Shalin Liu Performance Center by presenting the long-celebrated American pianist Garrick Ohlsson. Having received the gold medal at the 1970 International Chopin Piano Competition—the only American ever to do so—he has had a storied career of over five decades, having long since proven that his prowess extends far beyond Chopin’s music.

Perhaps twitting logic, Ohlsson opened his with a farewell, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat Major, Op. 81 (Das Lebewohl/Les Adieux). The composer intended the work to be a personal message to his friend, patron, and student, Archduke Rudolph, youngest son of Emperor Leopold II of Austria; the imperial family had to temporarily abandon Vienna, then under siege by Napoleon. Beethoven bookended the opening movement, also titled “Das Lebewohl”, with a slow horn-call figure (he inscribed “lebewohl”—farewell—over the first three notes). Ohlsson shaped the Adagio horn-call affectionately, creating a sense of intimacy that contrasted well with the extroverted, bustling Allegro. The second movement (Absence) began with inward, mournful yearning and progressed perhaps to happy recollections before returning to a keener longing. But without a break this gave way to eager triplets of the final movement (The Reunion) and ultimately to an explosion of joy. Ohlsson’s more liberal pedaling here caused the sonic exuberance to build but never allowed the effervescent texture to blur.

Before playing the next piece, which was written last year, Ohlsson spoke to the audience about the risk of commissioned pieces (he quoted Arturo Toscanini: “Nobody is a genius 24 hours a day”) but noting that after he had played Thomas Misson’s (b. 1991) Convocations nine times last year for the Musica Viva Australia festival in various Australian cities, he enjoyed the work enough to keep programming it. Misson’s “motivic and structural scaffolding” explored typically pianistic and more orchestral textures, the uneasy relationship of tonality and atonality, and different touches occurring simultaneously: particularly striking in Ohlsson’s hands was one tripartite texture comprising a slow melody, a more complex “embroidering” melody, and velvety accompanying chords. As Misson describes it, “Convocations combine the unlikely and disparate elements of the romantic piano giants, modernist styles, an Australian tour, a Tasmanian composer and an American concert pianist in a congregation that aims to give life to a spiritual sound world.” Though I’m not yet convinced of the staying power of this work, I think, like Ohlsson, that quite possibly multiple hearings might yield clearer insights into it.

The Fantasie in C Major, Op. 15 of Franz Schubert (widely known as the Wanderer Fantasy after his famous song which provides some thematic material for this work) enjoys notoriety for its extreme technical demands but is also celebrated for its innovative structure, the 25-year-old composer using the simple musical theme of the opening as the germ for many additional themes, modified in melody, rhythm, harmony, and texture but audibly relatives of the first version, throughout the four sections of the work. Ohlsson clearly mastered all its physical challenges but demonstrated more interest in exploring its musical riches than in displaying dazzling fingerwork. He presented the opening phrases vigorously and commandingly while the second theme and quiet repetition of the first theme were striking for their intimacy. Ohlsson demonstrated it was possible to adhere to Schubert’s ambivalent marking, Allegro con fuoco ma non troppo (Lively, fiery, but not too much). The opening pianissimo chords of the Adagio second section seized my attention with their splendid resonance, evocative of an organ in a cathedral, and by the unusual key—surrounded by C major—of C-sharp minor. Compared to the other sections of the Fantasie, the second most embodies the Wanderer sobriquet; the artist convincingly traversed the variations’ extreme dynamic range, great diversity of moods, astonishing harmonic variety, contrasting rhythms, and note durations ranging from half notes to 128th notes. The Presto third section supplied something of a scherzo based on a close relative of the Fantasie’s opening theme, here rendered more playful by a change in meter from common time to 3/4 and a still faster tempo. Before long, however, this light-hearted dance gave way to more heaven-storming passagework, culminating in the final section, a grand fugue whose subject is a still closer relative to the opening theme. Motoric energy suffused the entire section, enough to tax the stamina of any pianist, but Ohlsson forged ahead through the relentless passagework, nothing daunted, subtly pointing up each entry of the subject while gradually increasing the excitement which climaxed in the coda’s irresistible C major arpeggios and resounding final chords.

The program’s second half gave us an assortment of Chopin’s music, mixing the lesser known with the very well-known as well as the composer’s youth with his late maturity. First came the Variations brillantes, Op. 12, based on a theme from a now-forgotten opera by Ferdinand Hérold. One should not expect masterpieces from the pen of a 23-year-old composer—nor is this one—but in the hands of a master these variations diverted the ear and also displayed numerous unmistakable earmarks of their already unique composer, including chromatic, ornamental fioriture and bridge passages virtually throughout, the singing nocturne of the third variation, the mazurka-like friskiness of the fourth, and the scintillating technical display of the coda.

Perhaps for maximum contrast, the Barcarolle, Op. 60, a late work, followed. Many pianists, taking their cue from the work’s rocking rhythm and dreamy, sotto voce passages, interpret it as a cousin of Mendelssohn’s Venetian Boat Songs, an ostensible lullaby that nonetheless ends fully awake and joyful. Ohlsson’s more extroverted perspective eschewed the canals of Venice, however, in favor of the open sea with a healthy swell. He handled the more intimate passages sensitively with elegant rubato and refined tone, of course, but his emphasis seemed to be on enjoying the stiff breeze and the rolling of the barque on the waves, particularly in such stretches as the several moments with double trills and the climactic più mosso preceding the extended coda. This artist offered a Barcarolle particularly rewarding for avid sailors.

Garrick Ohlsson opens Rockport (Rory Crater photo)

Perhaps because they are more introspective and offer less opportunity for overt display, Chopin’s four impromptus don’t appear quite as often on recital programs as pieces from most of his other genres, but they are no less musically rich: this listener is always very happy to see any of them on a recital. The artist performed the second, Impromptu in A flat major, Op. 29, which is possibly the most popular of the four. The outer sections feature almost continuous 8th-note triplets in both hands at a quasi presto tempo with moderate to considerable chromaticism; Ohlsson’s deft fingerwork and sparing use of pedal  kept the texture transparent and evoked a whirlwind dance. The central section’s four-square, greatly more sustained march in F minor, made a vivid contrast. After the return of the exuberant triplets, Chopin also recalls this march with a repeated sequence of sotto voce quarter-note chords that fade away to the whispered conclusion. This was as far as possible from a spectacular ending, but Ohlsson’s rendering left a smile on many a face.

The official program concluded with a warhorse. The Scherzo No. 2, in B-flat Minor, Op. 31, is a heady mixture of hushed whispers, stentorian pronouncements, serenely confident assertions, increasing worry, intense turmoil, and ultimately hard-won triumph. Not coincidentally, it offers plentiful opportunities for technical fireworks but balances them with more lyrical, soulful passages. It is to Ohlsson’s credit that he, unlike some other pianists, would not allow this much-played work to become so much superficially thrilling if dazzlingly accurate note-spinning or, as Shakespeare would have it, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” As before, the fiercely demanding bits were rock-solid and appropriately stirring, but the artist showed at least equal interest in making the quieter phrases sing expressively, e.g., the con anima (with soul) melody in the outer sections and the A major sotto voce sostenuto central melody which served as an oasis of serenity surrounded by much drama. This calmer contemplation here set up more than momentary elation at the end but a sense of great victory over adversity.

The well-deserved standing ovation elicited one encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9 No. 2, another much-beloved staple of recitals. Once again, when Ohlsson chose to speak simply and affectingly to the heart, the results made the deepest impression: his exquisite dynamic control, beautiful variety of tone, and bel canto “singing” of the melody combined to form a treasurable rendering of this lovely piece.

Many thanks to Artistic Director Barry Shiffman for his persistence in obtaining Garrick Ohlsson who flew from the West Coast (without other East Coast dates) to be the first performer in this year’s Rockport Chamber Music Festival. An auspicious beginning, to be sure!

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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