Heart and soul music

Musica Viva, Garrick Ohlsson
City Recital Hall
February 22, 24

Garrick Ohlsson attracted international attention 50 years ago as the 1970 winner of Warsaw’s Chopin International Piano Competition. As he gently led the melody of Chopin’s Impromptu No. 2 in F-sharp major, Opus 36, from mellowness to melancholy in his first Musica Viva recital on Saturday, it was clear Chopin remains a sounding board for his musical soul.

The selection of six studies (5 – 10) from that composer’s Opus 25 that followed in the all-Chopin second half, began with number 5 in E minor, its quietly snapped rhythms like a haunting guitar. The soulful duet of number 7 between an imagined cello and violin became the expressive pivot point of the concert. After delicate filigree in Chopin’s Berceuse, Opus 57, Ohlsson finished with that composer’s Scherzo in C sharp minor, Opus 39, playing its central chorale theme with noble reserve, ornamented with cascades of light.

Chopin remains central to Garrick Ohlsson's repertoire.

Chopin remains central to Garrick Ohlsson's repertoire. Credit:Dario Acosta

Ohlsson’s performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in B flat, Opus 22 at the start of the concert had emphasised lightness, avoiding anything over-dramatic in favour of classic grace. Some pianists play Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 in A minor, Opus 82, as though leaping heroically through burning cities. By contrast, Ohlsson closed the first half with selfless exposition of this work’s musical purpose, bringing out classic coherence and logic amid the grotesquery of the outer movements.

For his second recital he paired Chopin with his younger contemporary, Brahms, juxtaposing that composer’s striving and virtuosic middle-period works with the inward turning mood of his late Fantasias, Opus 116. In Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies, Opus 79, Ohlsson maintained rhythmic definition amid tumult, while Opus 116, No. 4 dwelt in a sound world of peace and transformation.

The high virtuosity of Book 2 of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paginini, Opus 35 teemed with playful variety, creating robust textures without heaviness. In the second half he returned to Chopin, with the haunting gently ornamented lines of his Nocturne in B flat minor, Opus 9, No. 1, and the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Opus 58. Ohlsson presented the latter as a work of grand architecture supported by the weighty pillars of a striving first movement and a surging finale. The still turning point came in the slow movement where the breath of the music becomes so reflective and quiet as almost to stop. Ohlsson’s pianism throughout was magisterial, taming the most fearsome difficulties to visionary musical purpose and discovery.

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