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Chopin and Granados : Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Meany Hall, Seattle, 16.3.2011 (BJ)


Nocturne in F major, Op. 15 No. 1

Etudes, Op. 25 Nos. 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7

Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44

Mazurkas, Op. 7 Nos. 1, 2, and 3

Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4

Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20


From Goyescas:

Los requiebros

El fandango de Candil

Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor

El pelele

A year ago Garrick Ohlsson gave the Meany Hall audience a Chopin recital that was among the most memorable evenings of the season. This time, standing in for that great Chopin interpreter Nelson Freire, who was indisposed, he devoted his first half to the same composer, but then after intermission offered a rare opportunity to hear a substantial selection of pieces from the later 19th-century Spanish master Enrique Granados.

Excellent results were perhaps predictable in the Chopin, where this splendid pianist was as convincing in the marshal rhythms of the F-sharp-minor Polonaise and the quasi-Lisztian flights of the B-minor Scherzo as in the more withdrawn poetry of the other works. Granados is a more unknown quantity. I have loved his often delicately understated piano pieces for years, but Ohlsson opened up broader and highly impressive vistas, again capturing both tingling Spanish rhythms and at times surprisingly expansive romantic afflatus with equal conviction.

Ohlsson always makes a beautiful sound, so a certain brittleness in the middle reaches of the keyboard on this occasion must probably be blamed on the instrument, whose top and bottom registers were perfectly fine. But there were other circumstantial factors that undermined the success of the recital, and I hope readers-not to mention the pianist himself-will forgive me if I devote the bulk of this review to their consideration.

Concert platforms really ought to be plain in decor, so that we can concentrate on the music and on those performing it. In this regard, the three large paintings at the back of the Meany stage have always constituted a potential conflict of interest, but at least they don't move. Since last season, however, a fairly large screen has been suspended over the front of the platform, and its live representation of what is going on beneath it (i.e., another view of what's happening onstage) must surely be a distraction to any listener endowed with even a modicum of peripheral vision.

I am all in favor of finding creative ways to make concerts a more compelling experience-but not of devices that impinge negatively on the actual music. The Chicago Symphony's "Beyond the Score" concept, which I sampled recently at a Seattle Symphony concert where it was used, has its faults; but at least it is limited to preliminary exegesis and illustration, the performance proper being allowed to make its effect without visual interference. With Meany's new technology, it is very hard to restrict one's gaze to the actual pianist without being distracted by his image a few feet above.

It was a sad irony to hear a rather witty intermission speech soliciting financial support for the University of Washington's valuable music series, and on the same evening to be presented with an initiative that must have diverted a considerable sum of the university's money to the detriment of those series' mission. It is perhaps not necessary to go as far as Sviatoslav Richter went in eliminating visual distraction from the setting of a performance. Still, I shall never forget the sheer intensity of concentration in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw when he played five Beethoven sonatas there at one of his last recitals, and when the stage was dark except for one small lamp on the piano. The music, and his playing, were simply all there was to occupy the audience's attention, and the benefit in musical satisfaction was immeasurable.

I have no idea how the university writes the contracts for its -in most respects excellent- President's Piano Series. But I would seriously urge on future participants that they refuse to allow the impact of their three-dimensional music-making to be undermined by its totally unnecessary two-dimensional reproduction on that pesky screen.

Bernard Jacobson


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