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S & H International Recital Review

Garrick Ohlsson Recital, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, November 23, 2003 (BH)

Handel: Suite No. 2 in F major, HWV 427 (1720)
Haydn: Variations in F minor, Hob. XVII:6 (1793)
Beethoven: Sonata in C minor, Op. 111 (1821-22)
Scriabin: Four Etudes, Op. 8 (1894), Poeme in F-sharp major, Op. 32, No. 1 (1903), Deux danses, Op. 73 (1914), Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 (1907)


Shortly after Garrick Ohlsson launched the first few dignified bars of the Handel Suite, a high-pitched sound, most likely a hearing aid gone awry, forced him to stop, pause to regain his focus, and begin anew. Despite the errant device (that kept adding its unwanted input all afternoon), the artist emerged victorious and managed to find both power and poetry amid the barrage of distractions. This was my first experience with this piece, and I liked its alternating languid and sparkling moments, made more so with Ohlssonís cleanly elegant reading. The Haydn that followed was darker, but in Ohlssonís hands it revealed some wistful humor, and he made short work of the pieceís demanding flourishes and octaves near the close.

This Beethoven sonata is a profound thing, certainly one of the most mystical and unearthly flights by a composer writing ahead of his time. Considering the period (1821-22), the sonataís rapid mood changes and unusual chord progressions sound much more modern. In the first movement, Ohlsson nailed the stern opening octaves, and then sent us far and wide to a place that at one point sounded almost jazzy, with rhythms that reminded me of Scott Joplin, before finally ending in quiet repose. The second movement, with its aching, yearning theme, was haunting, especially in some superbly handled pianissimo passages. Ohlsson seemed to relish the gentle fire that makes this work so unforgettable, and a well-considered preface to the second half of the program.

When the lights dimmed after intermission, just as Ohlsson raised his hands to begin the Scriabin Etudes, a child somewhere in the balcony shrieked, "Noooo!" As the audience laughed and applauded, the pianist chuckled and shook his head, paused to realign his focus on the composerís ecstatic universe, and then began again. These early works sounded delightfully mysterious, the more elusive Poeme even more so, and then came the composerís penultimate piece, Deux Danses, with the striking Flammes sombres ("somber flames"). To end the afternoon, Ohlsson gave an athletic performance of the moody, spectacular Fifth Sonata, whose rocketing conclusion -- a meteoric ascent from the far left all the way up the keyboard -- also propelled Mr. Ohlssonís large frame completely off the piano bench.

His four encores included a deft and concisely played Finale from Mozartís Sonata in C, a witty rendition of Chopinís popular Waltz in E-flat major, and then two more Scriabin Etudes: the powerful, melancholy Etude in D-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 12 (a favorite of Horowitz), and then the tiny Etude in F-sharp Major, Op. 42, No. 3, the perfect graceful exit since it lasts all of thirty seconds.

Bruce Hodges



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