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Larger Than Life

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/25/2002 -  
Felix Mendelssohn: Variations serieuses
John Adams: China Gates; American Berserk World Premiere
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Preludes in C Sharp Minor and G Minor; Sonata # 2; arrangements of Bach Partita # 3 and Mendelssohn Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)

Every aspect of the Sonata # 2 of Sergei Rachmaninoff is big: gestures, reaches of the fingers, emotional leaps, and, usually, performers. In later years, this piece was one that Vladimir Horowitz reviewed with the unnaturally large-handed composer to revise so that other artists, with more normal anatomies, could attempt to play it. Written between two exhausting tours that rivaled the most prolific of Adolf Busch, a nightly round of concerts throughout America and then Europe that left the composer nervously exhausted and two of his children with typhoid, it tackles elemental issues in a ruminative and unhurried manner reminiscent of the new centerpiece of those melancholy peregrinations, the 3rd Concerto. Even with revisions, its sheer physical challenges are beyond the scope of most pianists; an ideal interpreter would have to be the size and stature of a Garrick Ohlsson.

My favorite pianist of the last century was unequivocally Claudio Arrau and every time that I see and hear his star pupil I am reminded of this master’s great artistry, intense sensitivity and prodigious technique. Ohlsson learned from the great Chilean how to use the natural laws of gravity to do most of the work of a recital, the implied power of his bulk stored away for occasional emphasis and power. What always amazes about the student is the eloquence of the softness emanating from such a huge frame. If one were unfamiliar with Mr. Ohlsson and were told that he was a musician, it would be natural to assume that he was a basso specializing in the Russian roles. Last evening at Carnegie Hall was his night to weigh in with his segment of the season-long celebration of the works of Rachmaninoff, whose capturing of the American heart this year continues in the summer with the lion’s share of the Ravinia Festival in Illinois.

Ohlsson’s performances of the Rachmaninoff pieces were brilliant. My only quarrel with the opening Bach transcription was a stylistic one. Unlike his contemporary Busoni, whose underappreciated music will be the focus of three Ohlsson recitals next season at Alice Tully, Rachmaninoff did not try to “modernize” the music, rather he sought to recapture its measured grandeur for a contemporary keyboard instrument. Ohlsson’s interpretation flew in the face of the arranger, whose own performance we have on recordings as a guide. Although the present pianism was impressive, the animal on display was less a bred champion than a mongrel.

Not having the opportunity to tire of them as the composer unfortunately did, Mr. Ohlsson presented the three most famous of the Rach preludes (he began his encores by nailing the mysterious g sharp minor) with a staggering amount of pity and power. The opening of the c sharp minor was profoundly arousing, the entire hall encompassed by its gigantic sound. The g minor was an awesome contrast between the weighty and the delicate (this great artist in microcosm). I especially appreciated the musicality of the Mendelssohn arrangement, its unhurried tempi so much more pleasing conceptually and melodically than other flashier virtuoso readings long on technique but short on atmospheric meaning. And the sonata was an entire novel of emotions, one of those telescopic Russian tomes of the mid-19th century (a curious phenomenon of this recital as a whole was that it seemed to be only about 45 minutes long and yet was the standard two hours). In case there was any doubt left in the crowd about this fine musician’s pianistic abilities, a generous portion of encores washed it away in a tide of technique. In the ending “Flight of the Bumblebee”, Ohlsson finally gave us that breakneck tempo usually employed for the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and capped it with a masterstroke of quiet dignity and good humor reminiscent of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

I was totally unfamiliar with the music of John Adams until last evening but have certainly seen his name plastered all over the classical pages. What was most surprising was how elementary this music was, the sort of toss-offs one could do on a Sunday afternoon while watching television. The first piece was simply standard minimalist claptrap, more soporific than meditative, while the world premiere was an arbitrary (why this particular note now rather than that one?) attempt at a jazzy piano feel. It seemed particularly unnecessary to listen to this work when one could journey downtown and hear the real thing much better presented at a dozen different clubs. Mr. Ohlsson, who possesses a prodigious memory (I still remember a recital in which he performed both the Goldbergs and the Liszt b minor virtually with no mistakes), here utilized the printed music and a page remover (these moderns don’t seem to be able to afford a bindery service) instead. Perhaps he did not want to commit this marginalia to memory; he might have been afraid that it would still be with him when he awoke tomorrow morning.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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