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Climbing Everest Twice

New York
Alice Tully Hall
01/17/1999 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach (arr. Liszt): Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor
Franz Liszt: Sonata in B Minor

Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)

Garrick Ohlsson likes to experience pianistic life in big bites. Recently he performed the entire oeuvre of Chopin in series launched in both New York and Europe and now he is tackling the works of Liszt in this ongoing series entitled Franz Liszt and the Art of the Piano, itself a part of the Great Performers series at Lincoln Center. He is physically suited to satisfy his (and our) Herculean appetite for this music as he is a gentle bear of a man and an apt pupil of his prestigious teacher (and my own personal favorite) Claudio Arrau. From the great Chilean he learned to let gravity do most of the work and he allows his prodigious bulk to settle naturally upon the keys to produce notes of high volume, never appearing to strain for a fortissimo. This technique serves him in good stead when he must navigate the faster Lisztian passages and all of the effort appears horizontally rather than vertically (Arrau was the master of this).

This afternoon's program began musically logically with a Liszt transcription of an early Bach organ work, as scandalously chromatic in its time as Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony or Liszt's Sonata which followed. What an exciting time it must have been when the young Liszt engaged in his virtuosic contests with Sigismond Thalberg and began to wow audiences with his arrangements of forgotten music like the Schubert songs and the many works of Bach! Fritz Kreisler had to invent lost gems, purporting to discover works of the Baroque masters while actually composing them himself, but Liszt mined a great treasure vein of compositions from the dusty shelves unearthed by Schumann and Mendelssohn. This early work has some problems in transcription (the low notes of the Fantasia do not resonate properly on the piano despite heavy pedaling by Mr. Ohlsson) but still must have seemed quite exotic to the public of the 1840's. Mr. Ohlsson played with a good deal of solemnity and force.

The Sonata in B Minor is one of those pieces that tower over the others in the keyboard literature. The quiet and detached opening notes alert the listener that this will be a thoughtful essay and Mr. Ohlsson played them quite poetically. He was particularly adept at phrasing the very long lines of the piece, a Schumannesque reaction to the aphoristic style of Chopin, filled with elongated discourse on the central theme and contrasting tempi throughout. One of my impressions after this concert was that I heard no wrong notes the entire afternoon and, considering how many pitfalls there are in the Liszt, this is an amazing feat. Mr. Ohlsson is not at all flamboyant (again reminiscent of Arrau) but rather plays this electric music with an air of detachment that concentrates the ear on the structure of this magnificent construction. Unlike a Horowitz (or Liszt himself by all accounts), Ohlsson never resorts to showing the audience how difficult the piece is to pull off, rather he seems to be saying that he can perform it with a minimum of effort. The result was extremely impressive and musically satisfying and the sold out house responded in kind.

Any mortal pianist would have taken it easy in the second half of a concert which featured the B Minor, but Ohlsson flexed his muscles by performing another of the gigantic works of the literature. The Goldberg Variations are from Bach's last years and are valedictory in nature, a compendium of styles that present an encyclopedic look at contemporary clavecin technique. Many of us (myself included) learned them from Glenn Gould and so it is somewhat of an adjustment to hear them played "straight", that is without the Romantic embellishments and rubati that characterized the Canadian genius' classic interpretation (not to mention the lack of humming). Mr. Ohlsson's conception, unquestionably closer to the composer's own, sailed into the mystic waters first explored by Edwin Fischer, emphasizing the extremely spiritual qualities of this numerological music. It is not necessary to know anything about augenmusik or the religious connotations of the permutations of the number three (representing the trinity) of this piece for one need only settle back and let Mr. Ohlsson's interpretation transport them to a higher plane of cosmic oneness. In his hands the canons, fugues and dances achieve a level of pure religiosity that touches one even in this age of apostasy. Never has Bach been so delighted with the constraints of a form, so free in his intellectual bonds, than in these wonderful "exercises" and Mr. Ohlsson presented them as the incredibly moving music that they are over and above any considerations of mathematics and musical architecture. He wrung every decibel of emotion out of his own personal Bosendoerfer and when the simple Aria da Capo was heard to end the piece I felt disappointment that we had finished so soon (although the work lasts approximately 50 minutes).

As he announced, no music can follow the Goldbergs but Mr Ohlsson played one encore, a lovely Klavierstueck of Liszt from 1865. He will perform two more concerts in this series this year, one featuring music of Liszt and Beethoven and one of Liszt and Schubert. Certainly these recitals will be of a very high quality and should be highlights of this spring in New York.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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