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December 8, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 49
 
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Garrick Ohlsson - How a fine pianist can hit and miss in the same recital
Garrick Ohlsson - How a fine pianist can hit and miss in the same recital
by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Garrick Ohlsson has impressed me in the past as a technical wizard, at least when it comes to playing all the notes very fast. His artistry is, however, another matter. Sometimes his taste is suited to a piece so that the performance comes off very well.

Sometimes he misses badly.

Such was the case with the opening Beethoven 'Sonata in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 1.' To be sure, all the dramatic contrasts were there, with energy and power. Yet, it all lacked any emotional impact on my ears. None of Beethoven's red-blooded passion came through because the sound was totally lacking in warmth. The banging fortissimos were harsh and brittle instead of angry. Blame some of that on Ohlsson's choice of Meany Hall's Bossendorfer piano instead of their Steinway. Well suited to music up through Mozart and some more modern composers, the Bossendorfer's purer midrange and treble sounded hard and too clear for Beethoven's revolutionary romanticism. Ohlsson's rather percussive approach also made the Beethoven sound cold rather than passionate.

More successful was the Liszt 'Sonata in B Minor.' I can't comment on how Ohlsson's huge hands fingered this most demanding of works, for my seats were on the right side of the auditorium, giving me no sight of his fingers at all! The sound still lacked the kind of warmth I want in this piece, but overall Ohlsson was more convincing here.

After intermission we were treated at last to a combination of the right composer (NYC native Lowell Liebermann, b. 1961), the right pianist, and the right piano. Liebermann's 'Nocturne No. 8, Op. 85' was most engaging. The harmonies, constantly toying with atonality, enhanced some lovely melodies and held our interest throughout. The Bossendorfer's crystalline clarity opened up the sound, perhaps because most of the work was quieter than what had come before. (Liebermann has also written a couple one-act operas: 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' and 'Miss Lonelyhearts.') The Chopin 'Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No.1' that followed was less successful, again lacking the parlor warmth I look for here.

The final work of the printed program also worked very well. Prokofiev regarded the piano as first and foremost a percussion instrument. Ohlsson's temperament fit most of Prokofiev's 'Sonata No. 7' perfectly, reveling in both the percussive and the playful moments. This composer wrote important and gratifying pieces for the piano, but few pianists present his genius to modern audiences. I'm grateful to Ohlsson for treating us.

The audience generally loved this performer and brought him back for three encores.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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