Saturday, January 20, 2018

Garrick Ohlsson adds familiar luster to ISO's all-Russian program

The way Russian classical music burst into the repertoire and now enjoys unshakable prominence
Garrick Ohlsson played a scintillating Tchaikovsky First.
somewhat resembles how bitcoin has muscled in on conventional currencies.

But there is nothing "virtual" about the permanent appeal of the nation's music, despite the distortions it endured throughout the Soviet era, on the world's concert stages. What started with Mikhail Glinka in the mid-19th century soon flourished in the output of "the Mighty Five" and a composer more than equal to all of them: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. More star Russian composers emerged in the 20th century, some of them self-exiled from their homeland.

The welcome presence of Garrick Ohlsson as guest artist Friday evening playing the best-known Russian piano concerto assured the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra of a large, receptive audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre. The performance of Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor concerto, tightly coordinated by music director Krzysztof Urbanski with the orchestra, presented the elder-statesman American pianist in typical form.

The well-known first-movement introduction featured both fire and reflection from all participants. In the main body of the Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, there was exquisite matching between soloist and orchestra, especially in the second theme. When it came to the climactic cadenza, Ohlsson imparted such variety of color that it was almost like hearing a second orchestra.

That sensitivity to timbre made the slow movement especially winning, complemented by one of the concert's many excellent solos from orchestra principals, that of oboist Jennifer Christen. Ohlsson invariably added to the richness of his palette a firm sense of balance that had both thunderous and tender passages speaking with full eloquence. In the finale, the measured build-up to the apotheosis of the lyrical theme from both soloist and orchestra lent multiple thrills to the work's climax.

For an encore, the pianist underlined the "greatest-hits" status of the programmed work with Sergei Rachmaninoff's most popular piece (which as a concert pianist the composer came to dread playing): the Prelude in C-sharp minor. Ohlsson made it sound fresh.

The program, to be repeated at 7 p.m. today, opened with Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin's opera "Prince Igor." Like the Tchaikovsky first piano concerto, this work falls rather indisputably into the "warhorse" category. But there's lots of life in the old nag when it is spurred with the excellent horsemanship it enjoyed on Friday. The dignity and self-possession of the dances that precede the whirlwind finale were well-judged. The interpretation showed this much-loved work is not all about the orchestra making a big splash, though that quality is characteristic of the suite, from the flamboyant woodwind solos on.

The program's second half consisted of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, preceded by Urbanski's commentary on the composer's difficult, lifelong adjustment to Soviet repression. Even when Shostakovich played the jester, there was sadness underneath. The conductor illustrated the point with a slide projection of a Polish painting showing a traditionally costumed jester slumped in a chair, his face clouded.

The huge slow movement that opens this symphony at first suggests the world-embracing breadth of Mahler; the unison theme in violas and cellos has the expansiveness of late Mahler, say, the unfinished Tenth Symphony. But that is soon undercut, and much of the music broods. All his life, Shostakovich wanted to think large and feel free, but inhibition often inflects his compositions. After his precocious First Symphony, self-consciousness bedeviled him. The ISO displayed the divided mind of a flawed genius with elaborate care.

The short second and third movements go from the somewhat conflicted high spirits of the Allegro on the way to a Presto that Urbanski quite understandably said resembles music for the circus. Before the exuberant climax is reached, there's even a lumbering episode that evokes dancing Russian bears. The piece doesn't quite "work" as a symphonic unity, except in the sense that it is, as Urbanski suggested, a self-portrait. This performance was loaded with spectacle and, more important, insight.

Relative latecomer though it is, Russian music has held its value. The truth of that could be brought up close to the present if we were able to hear more of, say, Schnittke and Gubaidulina, on American concert stages. Nonetheless, the mainstream represented by this program remains satisfying.

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