Thursday February 27
It’s great to have your preconceptions confirmed. I’ve been lucky enough to attend most of this American musician’s Melbourne recitals since he started touring Australia and here he is once more, thanks to the good graces of Musica Viva Australia, which organization chose Ohlsson to open its international concert season for 2020. You can look at the other artists to come in this series – Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet, the Cho-Ling/Parker duo, Les Talens Lyriques (but let’s not boast), Diana Doherty and the Eggner Trio back again, the Goldmund Quartet who won the last Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, and the San Franciscan vocal dodecad Chanticleer – but you could be excused for thinking that the best wine has been served first.
With Ohlsson, you enjoy that all-too-rare performance element: complete trust. On Thursday evening, the opening pages of Beethoven came over with just as much individuality and command as the final piece I heard – a Chopin encore. Confidence in craft practice is not that rare; these days, we expect a musician to be technically close to flawless in live performance and a great many concerts and recitals justify our confidence. What you don’t get as matter of course is interpretative skill where the player invests each phrase with informed character. Yes, you can come across other pianists with loads of personality; Bernstein as a pianist fell into this category, for instance – not all show, but example after example of attention-grabbing. The gift of taking you into a musical narrative or stream and not letting go: that’s very rare. Several big names on the international scene that I’ve heard spring to mind as coming close to the ideal – Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough, Marc-Andre Hamelin – but very few have this power of demanding involvement. Nikolai Demidenko is one; Ohlsson, another.
The visitor offered two programs on his Australian tour, the alternative one comprising Brahms (the Two Rhapsodies, the late Seven Fantasias and Book 2 of the Paganini Variations) coupled with Chopin’s Nocturne No. 1 and last Sonata in B minor. Program 2 featured two sonatas – Beethoven No. 11 in B flat and Prokofiev No. 6 – with a post-interval Chopin swag involving the F sharp Impromptu, the Berceuse, the third Scherzo, and Etudes 5-10 of the Opus 25 set. Ohlsson had already performed this melange in Sydney, Perth and Melbourne (and probably elsewhere, for all I know), and he has recorded all of it except the Russian work.
For my money, the Beethoven Op. 11 Sonata is imbalanced, the real interest arriving in the last movement, a rondo combining muted optimism and a richness of material that even Mozart would have envied. However, even in the preceding parts Ohlsson demonstrated his ability at finding striking novelties, like the powerful bass notes in bars 50-52, an unfalteringly loud delivery of the arpeggios in the development’s centre from bar 92 onward, and the balancing calm of the left-hand progression to the recapitulation. The following Adagio, with its siciliana suggestions, illustrated the pianist’s ability in handling rough surfaces like the repeated left hand chords and pedal notes, which other interpreters attempt to mitigate in insistence. Later, in the Minore Trio of the third movement, all 16 bars were handled with forte energy, ensuring that the surrounding segments acquired an added charm and warmth.
But the final movement gave us an extended instance of Ohlsson’s adroit mastery of Beethoven’s composition where the fluency of imagination shows as tautly harnessed and brimming with potential. The recurring theme is eventually infused into the structure and it takes a highly informed perceptiveness to cross through its content without hammering the obvious. Through these pages, the interpretation moved onto a high level where phrases seemed to arc naturally and the filigree sounded unflustered and organic.
At the unforgettable opening to Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, Ohlsson maintained the major-minor tension through a dynamic attack that remained sensibly couched so that the harmonic clashes sounded present and clear, presenting in its later complex working-out a full realisation of the composer’s violent, dogged emotional landscape that stays fraught even in light-textured staccato interludes. Not that you can avoid the smash-and-grab character of the final pages but Ohlsson kept his sustaining pedal under careful control, ensuring that any sound wash couldn’t turn into a meaningless blur.
The second movement Allegretto brings to mind the ballets (for instance, the warm stream from bar 5 through to the a tempo marking) with its clear-cut melodies given a wrong-note dressing; while you took in the clarity of execution, the movement’s legerdemain reminded you of what a formidable pianist Prokofiev was. Likewise, the following slow waltz – like the preceding Beethoven’s slow movement, a quasi-siciliana in 9/8 – called up the shade of Juliet; not surprising, as this work and the ballet are near-contemporaries. Here also, Ohlsson delighted with his insight into the composer’s brilliantly contrived textures, leading the listener through the lavish sequence of slightly-tainted concords that peak in a rousing B Major peroration.
Prokofiev’s finale begins as a cross between a moto perpetuo and a march, not quite optimistic but mobile enough; slight in its matter and balancing the first movement’s clangour. That is, until the writer brings the work’s opening motif back in an Andante break from the march – a brief if gloomy hiatus before the semi-quavers return and the work slashes a grinding path to its in-my-end-is-my-beginning last bars. Along this journey, Ohlsson gifted us with a formidable reading, accomplished with no attention-grabbing dramatics, not even in the col pugno first movement smashes; rather, we enjoyed a luminous outline of the work, all its pianistic terrors handled with sensibility and masterly flair.
As for this night’s Chopin pieces, the Impromptu No. 2 is a vital window into the composer’s creative fecundity, giving the impression of near-improvisation but every addition and deviation has been ideally situated. I was hugely impressed by the executant’s realisation of the long demi-semiquaver figuration that precedes the last 10 remembrance-of-things-past bars; a gripping demonstration of how to find placidity in a mobile sound-web. The six Etudes achieved their end of exhibiting the player’s control of Chopin’s several technical tests, but here invested with personality – especially the No 6 exercise in 3rds and its counterweight in No. 8’s demand for even consecutive 6ths. Still, what lives in the memory is Ohlsson’s commanding double octave hectoring in No. 10 with a superb performance of the final six bars where the energy reaches its climax as the octaves fly in opposite directions: an enlightening conclusion to a reading that managed to juxtapose successfully a rough assault with that sophistication you find in the best interpreters of this composer’s most aggressive pages.
As you’d expect, the Berceuse enjoyed a gentle dynamic; even the moment of deepest passion at bar 23 came across as integral to the prevailing piano–pianissimo approach. And the sequences of thirds, triplet semiquaver chords, delicate use of C flat as the piece heads into its final variations – all impressed for their contributions to this interpretation’s fluency. Finally, Ohlsson outlined one of those works that keeps every pianist striving: the C sharp Scherzo. For much of its length, this was a master-class in rubato. Nothing was rushed or thrown away as the performer gave full value to the volatile flights that are dotted throughout the score in profusion. It had the lot: virtuoso right-hand streams, eloquent chorales and their tail-ending chattering arpeggio patterns, driving rhetoric in double octaves, and a gripping stretto that made you hold your breath with tension.
I don’t usually stick around for encores; if the performer has done his job, there’s no need. But I stayed this time for a refresher course in Rachmaninov’s Op. 3 C sharp minor Prelude – no wonder the composer got sick of it, especially when you consider the gems to be found in the Op. 23 and Op. 43 sets – and a busily whimsical version of Chopin’s Minute Waltz in D flat. Icing on the cake, some might think; to me, a case of gimme-that-old-time-religion audience reassurance.