In first of three appearances here this season, Garrick Ohlsson in recital confirms his stature as a Chopin interpreter

Garrick Ohlsson played Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin here Sunday.
My first memory of Garrick Ohlsson is of a very tall young man entering the stage of Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan, resplendent in a white suit, complete with vest.

It was summertime in the early 1970s, and the attire seemed seasonally appropriate and also reflective of his radiance as a recitalist. Then and now, the superficially incongruous image of Mark Twain came to mind; the celebrated author favored white suits in the last decade or so of his life, and was often photographed in one.

Sunday afternoon's American Pianists Association recital by Ohlsson, who this time was more soberly clad, spurred a mental connection: The 67-year-old pianist, like Twain, is a master storyteller. The narrative thread in his interpretations, particularly of Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G minor, was remarkably sturdy and inviting.

The Ballade performance suggested the literary analogues to Chopin's invention — tales designed to beguile the listener in spacious yet comprehensible forms, with touchstones of emotion and drama along the way. Ohlsson took much of the Ballade more slowly than it is often heard, and he made the most of its reflective nature throughout. It was a patient performance, in no hurry to deploy its undeniably impressive reserves too soon or too often. Some moments had a deliberate "dryness" in the pianist's pedaling choices that were refreshing. Ohlsson sometimes delayed tempo accelerations in order to set out the material that went with them more deliberately.

There was similar breadth in the two Chopin encores he offered in response to the tremendous ovation he received from the Indiana Landmarks Center audience. Two of the Polish composer's most familiar waltzes — the E-flat, op. 18, and the C-sharp minor, op. 64, no. 2 — were expansively played, with a generous range of expression that never imperiled their cohesion. There was an adventurous quality  to these performances, an air of exploration. I was reminded of something Ohlsson long ago told an interviewer: "Piano playing is a constant movement into the future with your mind and body. You're always going forward into the unknown, basically."

The Nocturne in C minor, op. 48, no. 1, preceded the Ballade, which followed without a break.  The staccato octaves and chords in the left hand were delightfully understated, moving naturally into a slower section in which Ohlsson was scrupulous about the "sotto voce" indication. The subsequent, octave-rich crescendo was overpowering.

The minor mode (and mood) was characteristic of the recital's second half. Ohlsson played two adjacent etudes from op. 25, No. 5 in E minor and No. 6 in G-sharp minor. The playful skipping figures in the former were vivid, and it struck me that the contrasting theme in the baritone range could have been an attractive popular song in the era when Tin Pan Alley composers occasionally raided the classics.

Add to these wonders the Scherzo No. 4 in E major that opened the second half and you had an enchanting display of Chopin masterpieces. The scherzo was notable for something Ohlsson displayed throughout the recital: fully balanced sonorities that carried wonderful insights into Chopin's perpetually surprising harmonies.

In the first half, Ohlsson's storytelling gift prevailed in an unexpected way in Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy. The four linked movements can sometimes be heard as leaning toward the mighty summation of the fugue, by which time the composer's imaginative play with the song that gives the piece its title may weary the listener. Ohlsson presented a gallery of distinct characterizations. There was both nobility and panache at the outset, then an enchanting Adagio section and a witty Scherzo. A finely calibrated display of "voices" in the climactic fugue, everything in majestic proportion, had that "wow" factor uppermost to the very end.

Opening with Beethoven's Sonata in A-flat, op. 110, Ohlsson disconcerted me slightly with the stateliness of the Scherzo, which feels as if it should be headlong. Still, his approach steadied the mind and ears for a majestic fugue that's turned upside down, after some suspenseful dolor, to end the piece. The first movement gave notice that a master was at work being scrupulous about the music's dynamic variety and formal solidity while still "going forward into the unknown."

The pianist's other appearances in town this season, besides this "Grand Encounters" solo recital, are a chamber music concert with Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra members on March 20, and concerto performances with the ISO June 3-5 in Indianapolis and Carmel. They are certain to be red-letter days for local music-lovers.


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