Review: Garrick Ohlsson delivers a master class of Brahms, Scriabin and Schubert

Garrick Ohlsson. Photo: Dario Acosta

Music and Beyond continues to be plagued by lacklustre attendance — at least the evening concerts I’ve seen so far. Whether it was due to Bluesfest, the conflict with the Beyond the Bomb concert at the Diefenbunker Museum, or the usual summer cottage exodus, Dominion-Chalmers was barely half full for Garrick Ohlsson on Saturday night. It’s too bad, because Ohlsson delivered a superb recital, full of striking contrasts and peerless pianism.

The towering American virtuoso (no, really — he stands 6’4” in his socks) began with the six pieces from Brahms’ Op. 118. Ohlsson is a wonderful Brahms pianist: soberly expressive, architectural, without any excess sentiment. The familiar A Major Intermezzo glowed with tender longing; the G Minor Ballade took on literary dimensions through Ohlsson’s impeccable sense of dramatic peaks and valleys. There was lovely, cantabile left-hand playing in the F Major Romanze, while in the E-flat minor Intermezzo, Ohlsson unleashed a colossal, orchestral sound that underlined the work’s craggy modernity.

A selection of Scriabin pieces displayed Ohlsson’s staggering technique as well as his uncommonly lucid understanding of this elusive composer. This was a Scriabin masterclass, from the precisely defined, chromatic pattering in the Etude Op. 65 No.1 to the coy, playful sensuality of the Poème Op. 32 No.1. Ohlsson played the epic, single-movement Sonata No. 5 with titanic power and shattering intensity, the final upward rush of notes like an ecstatic leap into blue space.

In the second half, Ohlsson gave an unorthodox, profoundly personal interpretation of Schubert’s penultimate sonata, the A Major D 959. This was Schubert as a man with both feet firmly in the Romantic era, played with florid expression, audacious tempi, and mighty dynamic swings. If some of Schubert’s luminosity and delicate melancholy were lost, his miraculous lyricism and, especially, his inner turmoil were brought to the forefront.

Ohlsson’s tempo choice for the second movement was just about the slowest I have ever heard — more Adagio than Andantino. The dirge-like pace made the sparse main theme seem even bleaker and more world-weary than usual; the music took on the grandeur and pathos of a Bellini death scene. Ohlsson’s monumental sound, dense pedalling, and enormous sweep gave the central section an almost Lisztian feel. In the final movement, the pianist deftly threaded Schubert’s exquisite melody from sunlight to shadow and back again.

Ohlsson returned to Brahms for his encore: the E Major Intermezzo from Op. 116, played at a stately tempo and rendered in rich, velvety hues.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.