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Garrick Ohlsson at Kennedy Center

Garrick Ohlsson, pianist
Garrick Ohlsson, pianist
The Washington Performing Arts Society first presented Garrick Ohlsson 38 years ago as a last-minute substitution. Sunday evening’s solo recital at the Kennedy Center was inspiringly good, thus improving my esteem of the pianist, lessened by uneven concerto appearances in the past. Sonic waterfalls and lush landscapes filled the program of Prokofiev, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin.

The journey through Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 features stark contrasts between booming, transparent, and jolly material. Ohlsson’s masterfully measured transitions between different landscapes were magical. Frantic motion in the beginning of the first and second movements melted away into a hollow tranquility, while Ohlsson’s sparing use of the damper pedal increased overall clarity in this dense work. The unrushed tempo of the toccata-like Vivace final movement allowed Ohlsson to tap into the deep well of sound few pianists are able to access. Ohlsson’s still composure at the keyboard seemingly allowed the full weight of his tall frame to flow freely through his arms and loose wrists when necessary; excessive mannerisms can often send energy away from the instrument.

It is given that a performer of Ohlsson’s caliber will shape melodies beautifully; the true art lies in the careful nuance and, most importantly, independence of all lines. Ohlsson’s simple approach to Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor (as in the Prokofiev with mostly sparse pedaling and restrained tempos) allowed such details to surface. The clean, quick Scherzo featured waves of brisk notes forming creative shapes, while the end of the Finale brought forth a cascade of sound rich in quality.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Garrick Ohlsson's Deft Touch (Washington Post, April 8)

T. L. Ponick, Ohlsson's firm, eclectic recital (Washington Times, April 8)

Allan Kozinn, In a Pianist’s Expanding Repertory, Currents of Energy, Humor and Drama (New York Times, March 11)
Programming works of Scriabin following Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli made the Rachmaninoff seem like indulgent blather. The tight compositional style and angular motifs of Scriabin’s Etude in F# Minor (op. 8, no. 2) and Etude in B Minor (op. 8, no. 3) offered a greater focus to the audience. Whereas the Poème in F# Major (op. 32, no. 1) presented lyric indulgence, yet more highly balanced and of more compelling harmonic ingenuity than the Rachmaninoff. The splashy Sonata No. 5 in F# Minor, op. 53, embodied an incredible forward motion building to the end, when a barrage of ascending chords led Ohlsson to continue moving to the right and stand -- wiping his forehead -- for his bow before the piano had quieted.

Four additional Scriabin etudes were given as encores. Notably, the Etude in C# Minor (op. 8, no. 1), was an ode to the devilish sharp-key etude of Chopin with runs of parallel thirds. Ohlsson then shook the walls of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in the piercingly chromatic climax of the Etude in D# Minor (op. 8, no. 12), one of the most stunning moments in the pianistic repertoire.

The next piano recitals sponsored by WPAS will feature Sergio Tiempo (April 12, 2 pm) and Leif Ove Andsnes (April 22, 8 pm).

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