By R. M. Campbell
Garrick Ohlsson’s first of two concerts devoted solely to Chopin — to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth and Olhsson’s 40th anniversary of winning the prestigious Chopin competition in Warsaw — was a brilliant affair, what one has come to expect from this pianist in his long and distinguished career. His second concert Tuesday night at Meany Hall was even more remarkable.
Always Ohlsson has been an interesting artist, known for this powerful virtuosity, grasp of the music at hand and seemingly effortless music-making. But, since people almost inevitably cavil about something, with Ohlsson one could argue that his poetic sensibility sometimes got lost in the blaze of notes and sheer authority over them. That would not be a valid description of Tuesday’s recital. It oozed bravura, with all sorts of technical challenges dispatched with alacrity. Nothing seemed to faze him regardless of what Chopin put before him. He made everything thrilling the way only a virtuoso can do, thrilling because the notes were securely in place and performed in an electric manner. Everything seemed larger than life. Many pianists play this music but few have the notes in such a secure grasp.
However, this is not what made the concert so memorable, I would say. Rather, it was its poetry and lyricism. Chopin, of course, was a poet of the keyboard, but not every pianist can realize what he wrote. Musicians with little imagination can make the composer seem square. Not Ohlsson.
The program concentrated on a trio of nocturnes, a quartet of mazurkas, a brace of polonaises, the Grand Waltz in A-flat and the B-flat Minor Sonata to close the first half and the B-flat Minor Scherzo the second half. The pairing of one genre with another was spectacular. How different, how similar. The three Opus 9 Nocturnes were appropriately dreamy and elusive but often dramatic and potent. Nothing sentimental or wispy or conventional. He found theater in places one would not expect. There were fresh points of view. The two polonaises from the Opus 40 that followed were of the same pattern, giving the music abundant muscle framed in ravishing silk. The sonata is a big piece of music. Ohlsson made the scale even larger in the best sense of the word. There was theater, lyricism, drama. The “Funeral March” was appropriately solemn but the trio in the middle was particularly lyrical and beautiful The Finale was just as the marking indicated — “Presto” — so fast it was over almost before it began. Or so it seemed.
Mazurkas dominated the second half with three from the Opus 7 and the C-Sharp Minor from the Opus 30. In these pieces, which were Chopin’s kind of tribute to his native land, reveal the composer at this most harmonically adventuresome and freest. Olhsson captured all of that. The rubato was this amazing combination of pulling and pushing, never obvious and never disturbing the progress of the main ideas. He was in complete control yet the effect was one of utter spontaneity.
The recital ended with the Grand Waltz in A-flat and the familiar and dazzling scherzo. Olhsson got all the barn-burning aspects of the Scherzo, but did not neglect the lyricism of the middle section. I am not sure if I have ever heard a more compelling account.