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Marathon Man

New York
Alice Tully Hall
03/28/1999 -  
Franz Liszt: Scherzo (1827), Valses Oubliee #1&2, 3 Transcendental Etudes
Ludwig van Beethoven: Adelaide (arr. Liszt), Sonata #29 ("Hammerklavier")

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)

Most series of music in New York are over in a few days. A visiting artist or orchestra comes to town and offers two or three performances of thematic programming. Occasionally the series is elongated a little, such as a Met presentation of a Ring cycle on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Personally I have always preferred the alternate cycle schedule, four consecutive weeks with one opera each week on the same night. This allows the listener to enjoy the experience of the work for a much longer time and to make it part of their life experience. Garrick Ohlsson schedules his series to take advantage of long breaks, partly to practice of course, but also partly to involve his listeners to the full in the subject matter at hand. This year it is Franz Liszt and the Art of the Piano and is being presented at Alice Tully as part of the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center.

Today was the second of three concerts over several months. Previously we were treated to Liszt and Bach and next month it will be Liszt and Schubert. The present topic is Liszt and Beethoven and calls to mind that famous painting of Liszt at the keyboard staring at the large classical bust of the master for inspiration. The connection is deep between these two men. Beethoven began the explorations which would flower in the Romantic piano music of Liszt and both, in their own way, were creating "the music of the future". Mr. Ohlsson's series is concentrating on Liszt the progressive and this afternoon's selections sounded very modern indeed.

He began with a song transcription by Liszt of Beethoven's most famous Adelaide. After a long silent period Ohlsson produced a lovely version of this exceptional paraphrase, one of the few that actually seems an improvement over the original. He followed with the extremely progressive Scherzo discovered by Ferruccio Busoni in 1909 (at least Busoni claims to have discovered it; there is always the possibility that he composed it himself in the more contemporary idiom). Two essays on the phenomenon of memory followed: the forward-thinking Valse Oubliee #1, with its elusive snippets of melody trailing off into the void, and the merry grotesquerie that is its companion. One can hear Debussy and Ravel (and, non-pianistically, Mahler) in these chimerical dances seeming to be emerging from the lost depths of time. The second dance especially requires great technique in cross-handed playing and leaps of many octaves and all were negotiated flawlessly by this large-handed wizard. Ohlsson went for the brighter tone of the Steinway today rather than the more burnished Bosendoerfer that he used to play the Bach/Liszt concert and one of the joys of today's instrument was its high gloss and polish which put the pianists hands in clear focus as a mirror image in the sheen, visible to all of us on the stage right side. We were thus able to thrill to two pairs of hands, Mr. Ohlsson's and a disembodied pair, reminiscent of Peter Lorre's in Mad Love. Liszt would have loved this visual effect as his concerts (he really invented the piano recital as an art form) were part music and part circus and his hands were always the center of attention (he often played on two pianos with facing keyboards so that everyone in the crowd would have an opportunity to observe his digital necromancy).

Ohlsson then launched into three of the more difficult Transcendental Etudes and performed each not only technically flawlessly and seemingly effortlessly (he learn his art from the master of the understated physical action Claudio Arrau) but with great musicianship. These are etudes after all and are designed to teach different finger and hand movements to aspiring virtuosos. Ohlsson made each one seem alive and important as music, something very often neglected by showmen who can play the notes (no small task in these cases) but miss the substance in between.

After so many finger-breaking stunts one would think that Mr. Ohlsson would take it easy on himself in the second half of the concert, but instead literally ran out on the stage and, without even waiting for the applause to subside, launched into the dramatic opening of the Hammerklavier, emphasizing in a very exciting way its tremendous energy. But all of this effort took its toll and there were a number of wrong notes in the second movement and dozens in the fourth. The amazing Adagio sostenuto, the true beginning of Beethoven's last introspective period, was performed with an intellectual clarity rare in the modern pianist and would have been worth the price of a ticket had it been presented alone. A noble effort altogether, but I'm afraid that the early sprinting took some of the wind out of the athlete's finish.

Mr. Ohlsson presented us with the perfect encore for such a monumental afternoon by playing the Bagatelle in A Major Op.119#10, which lasts about 20 seconds. Its brevity made us reflect once again on the monumental feat attempted and mostly achieved. I would love to hear him play the great Beethoven sonata again when he is more rested.

To find out more about concerts at Lincoln Center you may consult their website www.lincolncenter.org

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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