Musica Viva. Adelaide Town Hall. 8 Jun 2023
Garrick Ohlsson speaks from the stage at various times during his recitals to give the audience the benefit of his deep thinking and reading about the music he plays. What he says is not necessarily revelatory or exotic, but it is interesting and gives us a teasing glimpse into what a musician at the top of his piano game thinks about. Ohlsson is at his eloquent best at the keyboard. Anything that he really has to say about the music is said by way of his playing, and it is awe inspiring to experience.
Ohlsson is playing two programs on his current Australian tour for Musica Viva, and the program enjoyed by the Adelaide audience comprised works by Debussy, Barber, and Chopin, as well as a new work by contemporary Hobart-based composer Thomas Misson that was privately commissioned for Musica Viva to be performed by Ohlsson. He commented there was an inherent risk in agreeing in advance to première a new work by a living composer, because you couldn’t be aware of what it would be like. As a performer you are aware of the composer’s previous compositions, but couldn’t know what was next. Thankfully, Ohlsson cheekily quipped, Misson’s new work Convocations (composed this year) was “pretty good”. And indeed, it was. Many modern compositions are episodic in nature, with tenuous connections between the individual sections, and Convocations is of that ilk. At its heart is a six-note tone row and the sections explore and vary the motif. It starts almost in French impressionistic style, and soon a repeated note in the right-hand tugs us out of its meditation-inducing impact. As it progresses, we sense the piece’s connections with the other compositions Ohlsson performed before it: Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, L.75 (1905), and Barber’s mighty Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, Op.26 (1949).
The expansive stage of the Adelaide Town Hall was sober: no decorations, just the Steinway concert grand piano flanked by two suspended Musica Viva banners and the imposing Walker & Sons pipe organ providing the backdrop. The austerity of the setting was however apt – it focussed all attention on Ohlsson and the music. The four-section Suite bergamasque fares best when played with simplicity and clarity without indulging in overstressed displays of technical prowess and wallowing in Debussy’s poetic melodies. Ohlsson did just that, and his thoughtful and refined approach included personal interpretive touches such as more rubato in the iconic Clair de lune section than one might otherwise be accustomed.
The feeling of reverie induced by the Debussy was soon dashed by the fire of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata in E-flat minor. It is a masterpiece of the twentieth century and was met with immediate critical acclaim when it premièred in 1949. It is still greatly admired although, sadly, it is infrequently included in recital programs. Technically it is punishing, and demands virtuosity of the first order. Often, a pianist signals this through intense body language at the keyboard, but not Ohlsson, who appears seemingly at ease. He scarcely shifts in his seat, and his shoulders barely move from the same vertical plane. He has incredible forearm strength but can also execute the most delicate filigree and pianissimo passages with ease. Ohlsson’s performance is accentuated by clarity, and this is especially evident in the final fugue movement, in which he exposed and laid bare the individual voices and the relationships between the variations. The ease with which he tossed off the final cadenza made the audience draw breath.
Ohlsson is unquestionably one of the world’s best living interpreters of Chopin, arguably the best. His performance of the Variations brillantes, Op.12 (1833), was poetic and refined. There were no surprises, except what is difficult was made to appear simple. Ohlsson then played the slow third movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No.1 in C minor, Op.4 (1828) and remarked to the audience that it was the most impressive movement from the sonata which was a “student effort” of Chopin, but that he was still a “very good student”. The concert concluded with a masterful display of Chopin’s Scherzo No.2 in B-flat minor, Op.31 (1837). It is one of Chopin’s most recognisable works, and as Ohlsson was racing to its triumphant conclusion the audience was readying itself for an explosive display of appreciation at what was truly a masterful display of pianism by one of the world’s best.
When: 8 Jun
Where: Adelaide Town Hall