Musica Viva: Pianist - Garrick Ohlsson. Llewellyn Hall, 7pm, Tuesday, February 18, 2020
So relaxed and economical is Garrick Ohlsson's performance style that the listener might be lulled into absorbing his music in a comfortable frame of mind, until the moment when the pianist's mastery twists the familiar phrases into something quite provocative.
The joy of live performance is that the experience is multi-layered: one hears the personal interpretation of the soloist, but there are also memories that chime in - and these are as powerful as the audible melodies.
I had admired Ohlsson's rendering of the contrasting program of works by Brahms and Chopin, but his second encore, The "Revolutionary" Etude Op. 10 No.12 ambushed me with the embodiment of the raw anguish of Chopin at 21 when he heard of the Russian attack on Warsaw and wrote the work. Simultaneously, I was transported back to a music room in a North Coast convent where I stood at the age of 17 listening to my friend and musical rival as he played The "Revolutionary" and the flood-battered upright piano rocked and shook with the passion of the music.
It was an electric connection from Ohlsson that abruptly removed the tarnish of the working day, bathing the senses in the brightness of youth translated into music.
It is easy to become blasé about the ability of professional musicians to perform a program from memory, but Ohlsson personifies the meaning of "knowing the music by heart".
The opening two Brahm's Rhapsodies Op. 79 demonstrated the pianist's mastery of the symphonic complexities of the pieces. Alternating in intensity and expansiveness, the moody Agitato and the meditative Molto passionate, ma non troppo allegro were a fine beginning for the evening.
The Seven Fantasias, Op 116 offered an excursion through the thoughts and sensitivities of Brahm's later years. In these pieces we heard Ohlsson's magical ability to extract a delicate, even-toned pianissimo of extraordinary beauty from the Steinway. I particularly enjoyed Intermezzo in E major, Adagio, and Intermezzo in E major: Andantino, which unfolded like a walking meditation.
In these pieces we heard Ohlsson's magical ability to extract a delicate, even-toned pianissimo of extraordinary beauty from the Steinway.
Ohlsson's interpretation of Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op.35 Bk 2 was notable for the spaciousness with which he infused this tempestuous work. Once again, the remarkable pianissimo asserted the notes in quiet passages before the pianist's chasing hands flew across the keys, articulating cross rhythms, running thirds, octaves and crushed notes at high speed.
Loveliest of the evening's musical works were the Chopin Nocturne in B flat minor Op. 9 No.1 and the Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op 58. Ohlsson has the ability to transform a descending run into liquid light, so evenly spaced and balanced are the notes he strokes from the keys.
The Largo lingers in the memory for the distinctive use of pedal, creating clouds of sound as light as vapour. Louder dynamics and energetic attack characterised the triumphant finale, but for me, it is the memory of "The Revolutionary" that will not fade.