Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Garrick Ohlsson

Jan. 18, University of Richmond

Hearing Garrick Ohlsson play Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor from the vantage of a fifth-row seat in Camp Concert Hall of the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center was a total immersion in piano sonority – evidently too much so for a number of patrons around me, who moved back from rows near the stage for the second half of Ohlsson’s
all-Liszt program.

The veteran pianist, who turns 64 in April, is a heavy hitter when that’s called for, as it is in parts of the sonata and much else by Liszt. But this composer also was one of piano music’s most inventive, and at times subtlest, creators of tone color, as well as a frequent employer of pregnant silence. Ohlsson consistently displayed his mastery of those qualities in Liszt, at least as impressively as he played the big chords and glittering runs.

Ohlsson’s selection of works for this recital ran the gamut, from the heavily rhetorical to the delicate, from the evocative to the abstract, from the popular to the obscure.

The sonata and “Mephisto Waltz” No. 1, positioned, respectively, as the climaxes of the first and second halves of the program, received ovations, and deserved them for being both stormily virtuosic and deeply musical. Ohlsson devoted as much care and concentration to less familiar selections, such as “The Gardens of the Villa d’Este” from Book 3 of “Années de Pèlerinage” and “Will o’ the Wisp” from the “Transcendental Etudes.”

His placement of Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor at the beginning of the program usefully cleansed the stereotypical image of the composer as a bombastic showman, allowing the listener to hear the following sonata as much more than a romantic finger-buster. Placing “Funérailles” from “Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses” in the second half, as a kind of echo of the sonata, was a canny trick: In fact, “Funérailles,” written three years before Liszt began the sonata, was a pre-echo of, perhaps a template for, the great work.

The programming of this recital also was a constant reminder of how aware the composer was of the music of contemporaries such as Chopin and Wagner, and how influential Liszt was, both on his peers (“Tristan und Isolde” owes more than a bit to the Sonata in B minor) and on generations that followed.

Ohlsson’s performance was as instructive as it was masterful.