Garrick Ohlsson at Wigmore Hall

Suite in F, HWV427
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op.24
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude
Trois etudes, Op.65; Fragilité, Op.51/1; Piano Sonata No.5 in F sharp, Op.53

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 29 November, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Garrick OhlssonThis was a very well-planned Wigmore Hall recital. In Handel’s highly unusual Suite (it is more like a sonata, and the first movement ornamentations are in the score) Garrick Ohlsson took the opening Adagio very slowly, with rubato and judicious use of the pedals. It was totally lacking in authenticity and very beautiful! Ohlsson’s fingering in the ensuing Allegro was soft and he opened the second Adagio with a highly romantic operatic flourish. However here the very slow tempo robbed the music of its singing quality and the ‘Fuga’ needed more crispness and rigour.

Ohlsson obviously likes Brahms’s Handel Variations, having recorded the work twice (a review of the Hyperion version is below). The Theme was slow and stately and the shading and phrasing were varied for each statement of it. Variation I had real swing and delightful right-hand arabesques, II was impressionistic with generous rubato and the stately dislocated rhythm of III was made highly compelling, as was the singing tone and sculpted line of V. There was an air of quiet tension in VI, but the right-hand in the following Variation needed more emphasis. Throughout the first half of the work Ohlsson used a very restrained dynamic range and the superb attack in XIV was jarring, especially as the funereal spread chords of XIII had been beautifully voiced. The right-hand staccato figures of XVII were marginally too relaxed, but their falling semiquaver transformation in XVIII was fully realised. Ohlsson’s powerhouse playing of the Fugue was magnificent and masterly – and very old-school!

After the interval Ohlsson played Liszt’s glorious Bénédiction, any performance of which must convey ecstatic spirituality, inner calm and peace. Unfortunately Ohlsson seemed to see it as a showpiece and the opening theme was disfigured by tempo changes, unnecessary crescendos and accelerating into climaxes. The second section was too fast, but the third was initially beautifully voiced at a suitably slow tempo, and yet once again there were unnecessary tempo changes. In the rapt final section the three main themes are recalled in bare outline (the first is revealed as one of the greatest melodies ever written) and here Ohlsson’s playing was suitably rapt and there was total silence at the end.

The opening cadence of Scriabin’s Allegro fantastico Opus 65 Etude sounds like late Liszt and it would be difficult to imagine a more beautiful performance of this study in ninths than that given by Ohlsson – here sound was everything. A similar pre-occupation disfigured the following Allegretto, though, which was too slow and too smooth, and while there was some powerful playing in the last Etude, the elemental savagery of the music wasn’t entirely captured. The same couldn’t be said of the single-movement Fifth Sonata. Here Ohlsson tore into the first section and then took the second contrasting episode very slowly and softly. Once again there was rubato, rhythmic power and finesse, a huge dynamic range and a sense of total concentration and power. Ohlsson made the massive climaxes sound like Rachmaninov and the coda was a tour-de-force.

There were two Chopin Waltzes as encores. The opening of the E flat was almost off-hand, the contrasting second theme very slow, the ebb and flow of the tempo, the touch, phrasing and what sounded like split-hands, belonged to a bygone era and much the same could be said of the C sharp minor Waltz. I can pay Garrick Ohlsson no greater compliment than to say that I was reminded of Josef Hofmann.

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