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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Brahms, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff: Garrick Ohlsson, piano, Christian Knapp, cond., Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle,4.5.2006 (BJ)

With a soloist of Garrick Ohlsson’s artistic stature on hand, the evening’s performances of the Schumann Piano Concerto and the Rachmaninoff No. 2 were never going to be less than beautiful. The American pianist, whom it has been a pleasure to watch growing into true greatness over the past three decades and more, did indeed play beautifully, and he was partnered by the same fine orchestra, and the same highly musical conductor, that I enthused over just a few days ago.

Does that rather guarded first paragraph presage hidden complaints? Well, it’s always salutary, in reviewing a pianist in concert, to remember one very important difference between his situation and that of almost any other kind of soloist. String players, wind and brass players, singers–all carry their instruments with them, and can thus, other factors being equal, be assigned full responsibility for the sounds that emerge. Pianists, to their misfortune, even after they make their more or less careful selections, remain subject to the quality of the best instrument available. And on this occasion the Steinway on which Ohlsson performed did him less than justice. It sounded solid and incisive enough across the lower and middle registers, if a tad harsh even there; but anyone unfamiliar with his playing could have been forgiven for concluding that he does not command a particularly beguiling tone on the upper reaches of the keyboard. That is far from being the case, and indeed, in the finale of the Rachmaninoff particularly, Ohlsson did manage to evoke some lovely, crystalline passages–but only when the course of the music was not demanding a real forte dynamic, when a certain tinniness frustrated his best efforts in some measure.

I understand that the Seattle Symphony has recently acquired the services of a new piano technician, who has not yet had time to effect much change in the condition of this particular instrument, so I hope with some confidence that the problem will soon be rectified. Meanwhile, there was more than enough poetic phrasing, expressive sensitivity to shifting rhythmic patterns, and sheer digital fluency in Ohlsson’s playing to render his interpretations of two supremely popular concertos more than ordinarily satisfying.

If they were not the last word in perfection, then, it was not his fault. But, quite aside from the instrument question, I have to say that certain aspects of Christian Knapp’s conducting also troubled me. “Highly musical,” I called him above, and that impression, gained first when I heard him conduct Debussy, Sibelius, and Bartók last week, was confirmed this time around, both in the opening performance of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture and in his solicitous direction of the two concertos. This is clearly a young conductor to watch (and listen to): he loves and understands music–a state of affairs you cannot always, regrettably, take for granted–and he has the gift of communication. On the other hand, one or two technical problems conspire to make him, just for the moment, a better musician than conductor.

It is always a ticklish business, attended by a degree of presumption, for a critic to offer gratuitous advice to a serious artist. But I really would urge Knapp to think hard about his weakness for what Sir Adrian Boult used to call “the Grecian vase effect”–the tendency, especially common among young conductors, for the left hand to mirror what the right hand, holding the baton, does. To adapt an old saying, it really is better for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing. If you are going to do anything with the left, it should be to indicate specific modes or moods or expressive contours or concepts of phrasing and tone-production; to let it be little but a symmetrical duplication of the beat is first of all wasted effort, and secondly counterproductive, for it makes the orchestral players’ task of following the beat harder.

And speaking of wasted effort, when he has thought about that one, Knapp needs also to rein in his altogether excessive physical exuberance on the podium. I am sure the physical exuberance is an entirely natural outgrowth from his emotional involvement in the music. But, for a conductor, to be exciting, it is not the best course to be excited. Knapp’s beat gets bigger when he wants a big effect–but a big effect tends to be much more reliably, and unanimously, elicited by a smaller beat. His tendency to be constantly bouncing up and down, moreover, exacerbated both by the size of his beat and by the fact that he is a tall man to begin with, means that his stick is often way above the level at which the musicians can most easily keep their eyes on it. The same Adrian Boult once recounted in a broadcast talk how, watching the great Arthur Nikisch conduct, he had realized that, if the baton had once risen above the level of Nikisch’s head, the roof would have fallen. If that had been true on Friday, Benaroya Hall would by now be topless.

Young conductors with talent must be encouraged. Christian Knapp has talent, no question. So I did not see fit to mention these concerns in my first review of his work, though they had already come to mind then. I hope he will understand that I raise them now in no negative spirit, but precisely because he has talent–talent that must not be wasted, and that is already sufficient to draw fine performances from hardened orchestral players, but that can achieve much more in the future if it is carefully nurtured and developed.

Bernard Jacobson




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