Familiar Mastery from Garrick Ohlsson

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Schubert, Griffes, and Chopin: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Meany Hall, Seattle, 15.1.2014 (BJ)

Beethoven: Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109
Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D. 760, “Wanderer”
Griffes: Fountain of Aqua Paola, Op. 7 No. 3; Scherzo, Op. 6 No. 3; The White Peacock, Op. 7 No. 1
Chopin: Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58


For his latest piano recital in Meany Hall—no fewer than the fifteenth appearance in the University of Washington World Series for this ever-welcome guest—Garrick Ohlsson devised a program that suggested the organic cohesion of a breath in followed by a breath out.

Among the principal wonders of Beethoven is that so aggressive and rough-hewn a personality could encompass as caressingly tender a vein of expression as can be found anywhere in music. That quality is especially evident in such late works as the E-major Sonata, Op. 109, which is one of the composer’s most inward works, worlds removed in manner from the sonata-style dynamism of his middle period. And though the difference between Beethoven and Schubert is often the difference between the emphatically dramatic and the meltingly lyrical, next to this particular Beethoven work Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy is by far the more robustly outgoing piece.

And yet the two masters also imbued these seemingly atypical works with strongly contrasted characteristics. Between Beethoven’s musingly contemplative first movement and his surpassingly gentle closing set of variations—itself diversified with explosive moments—stands a rocky outcrop of a scherzo, while in its slow section Schubert’s Fantasy plumbs magical depths of lyricism. Having put these two works together for his first half, Ohlsson delineated all of their varied moods to perfection, with all of his familiar mastery of touch and phrasing. Perhaps some of the punctuating chords in the first section of the Schubert were a tad uncharacteristically harsh in tone, but that was the only detail that stood between these performances and perfection.

After intermission it was the turn of two more young composers. (Have you noticed that Beethoven was the only composer on this program who lived to celebrate his fortieth birthday?) Charles Tomlinson Griffes would surely have become one of the bright lights of American music but for his death in 1920 at the age of 35. Ohlsson, who has released a complete CD devoted to Griffes, offered us two of the composer’s Roman Sketches, The Fountain of Aqua Paola and The White Peacock: pleasingly romantic music suggestive of a certain parallel with Griffes’s near-contemporary George Butterworth, who for his part was snatched from English music by his death at thirty-one in the First World War. Even more impressive was the Scherzo, Op. 6 No. 3, crisp in texture and spiked with arresting cross-rhythms.

As for Chopin, Ohlsson gave the B-minor Sonata, the last of his three essays in the genre and to my mind the greatest, a performance that laid bare the true character of this often misunderstood man and composer. Strong in expression and masterly in formal organization, it has very little of the perfumed filigree we may think of first when we think of Chopin. And his range of style was further illuminated by the two waltzes Ohlsson chose for encores: the mercurial Opus 18, played with delicious rhythmic zest, and Opus 64 No. 2, mellowly romantic, but again free from any hint of sentimental gush.

Bernard Jacobson


This review appeared also in the Seattle Times.