Monday, March 21, 2016

Assisted by Indianapolis Symphony musicians, Garrick Ohlsson graces the season for the second of three times

As Garrick Ohlsson's solo recital here last fall demonstrated, he is a pianist with the verve of a youngster and the good manners and elegance of a venerable master.

These qualities were also evident here Sunday in collaboration with four members of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, in a co-presentation with the American Pianists Association in Indiana Landmarks Center's Grand Hall.

Garrick Ohlsson will return to town in June as a concerto soloist.
Major works for piano and strings were the focus. Both of them are complex, generously proportioned pieces in four movements: Beethoven's Trio No. 6 in E-flat, op. 70, no. 2, and Brahms Quintet in F minor, op. 34.

Among the large Brahms legacy of compositional second thoughts, the quintet began life as a strings-only work, then passed through a two-piano version that attained some currency among Brahms' friends for several years.

What the composer seems to have been seeking was an instrumental combination that would honor the strength of his ideas, especially their intricacy and contrasting quality. So it is what we might call his third thoughts about the composition that have come down as the masterpiece that made up this concert's second half.

In Sunday's performance, the expansive first movement set the tone, displaying glowing rapport among Ohlsson and violinists Zachary De Pue and Peter Vickery, violist Mike Chen, and cellist Austin Huntington. There were wonderfully expressive solo phrases passed around between the strings, notably Huntington and Chen. The blossoming lyricism characteristic of early Brahms begins to undergo sublimation in this period (the 1860s), as counterpoint and rhythmic complexity come to the fore.

This ensemble showed lively reverence for all aspects of the work. Ohlsson's phrasing and warm tone seemed to inspire his one-time-only colleagues. Transitional phrases that link the jostling main material were full of suspense. There was good unity of tone and balance throughout. These qualities were sustained to the end. The gathering intensity of the finale was especially well-controlled, yet lent a feeling of spontaneity that is among the more attractive qualities of this scrupulous composer at his best.

Before intermission, the Beethoven trio (with Huntington and De Pue) gave the audience more exposure than the ISO's Hilbert Circle Theatre audiences have had so far to the orchestra's excellent new principal cellist. In exchanges with piano and violin as well as combined energy, the cellist's playing had a collegial purity that raised him to a level compatible with his more experienced partners.

The trio lent animation and lilt to the work's occasional suggestions of folk music as well as to its Haydnesque wit. Such lighter touches are in the service of a carefully crafted structure and an expressive depth that can be counted equal to the very best of Beethoven. This ensemble kept all that weight well-balanced, delivering a delightful performance. The insights and sheer humaneness of the guest artist were crucial to that effect.

[Photo by Kacper Pempel]

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