At this point Garrick Ohlsson surely must be one of the best all-around pianists performing today, if not the very best. He is not just a virtuoso, but a complete musician. His touch displays incredible control even in the most delicate passages, with impeccable voicing and phrasing, and judicious rubato–especially in Chopin. He is not prone to interpretive eccentricities, but he always plays thoughtfully and with style. All of these things serve to communicate the ideas behind the music and to engage the listener emotionally.
Last year I saw Ohlsson perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. That interpretation was astonishingly perfect in its execution, but if anything I enjoy Ohlsson even more as a solo artist. This is because it enables one to focus more on the subtleties in his playing, which can potentially get buried under an orchestra. His encore performance of Debussy’s Claire de lune at the same ASO concert was easily the most captivating and magical version of that piece I have ever heard.
Friday night’s concert at Emory’s Schwartz Center did not disappoint my expectations. In the first half he performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30, Op. 109 (one of my favorites), followed by Chopin’s Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 7, No. 2 and Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. The Beethoven was assured and satisfying, especially the final theme-and-variations movement, but his playing really came alive with the Chopin. In fact, the Chopin sonata was the clear highlight of the evening. Compared to Ohlsson’s earlier (very good) recording of the same sonata that is part of his big Chopin CD box set, this performance was superior in the way it encompassed Chopin’s large-scale musical structures. The audience even applauded at the end of the long and complex first movement, and not without justification. The third movement, the Largo, was appropriately majestic and contemplative, causing me to wonder whether the piece might have been an influence on Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude. Tempos for the Beethoven and Chopin were relaxed in a way that enabled Ohlsson to savor the details in the music without, thankfully, losing a sense of momentum. It is gratifying to see Ohlsson continue to grow as a Chopin interpreter, and I hope he does some new recordings of Chopin in the future—especially the two great sonatas. Afterwards one of my friends compared Ohlsson’s playing to Pollini and commented that the concert easily could have ended with the Chopin sonata.
Yet the concert did not end with the Chopin, but rather with a selection of Alexander Scriabin pieces from various stages in the composer’s career. After an opening piece (Désir, Op. 57, No. 1), Ohlsson offered a witty introduction to Scriabin’s work and personality. The pieces included a pair early Etudes (Op. 8, Nos. 10 and 11), the more harmonically and formally adventurous middle period (the Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; Fragilité, Op. 51, No. 1) and the virtually atonal Sonata No. 7., Op. 64. The later compositions especially can be challenging for the performer and listener alike, but he made them engaging and full of dazzling color. I hope that Ohlsson continues to perform and record more of Scriabin in the future as well.