Garrick Ohlsson, Wigmore Hall, London

A gentle giant with a delicate touch

Review,Adrian Jack
Tuesday 10 December 2002 01:00

Garrick Ohlsson is a big man and a big pianist – almost too big for the third of Beethoven's Op 2 Sonatas, where his enormous dynamic range and sheer weight of sound seemed squeezed by the classical dimensions of the first movement. If its brilliant flurries were somewhat alarming, Ohlsson settled down in the remaining three movements, and the Adagio was imposing but not out of proportion. You could almost feel what inspired Mendelssohn's light touch in the finale.

Ohlsson was a student of Claudio Arrau, and though a teacher's influence is often overrated, his extreme attention to expressive detail, the considerateness of a gentle giant, possibly owes something to that source (though in physical stature, Arrau was a much smaller man than Ohlsson).

He certainly milked the theme of Rachmaninov's "Corelli Variations" for its plaintive potential and analysed the intriguing rhythmic dislocations of the hands in the first variation with scrupulous clarity. The composer himself used to drop some of the variations if someone in the audience coughed or grew restless.

Now that we are used to the occasional harmonic sourness of this late work, there need be no fears about the length of the piece, certainly not when a pianist like Ohlsson is in such easy command.

The sweeter aspects of Rachmaninov were on display after the interval, but first Ohlsson brought us two pieces, composed 25 years apart, by one of the more highly flavoured present-day American composers. I find the flavours of John Adams rather synthetic, though there's nothing intrinsically wrong in being an eclectic. "China Gates" (1977) shuffles a few notes at a time to faintly bell-like effect over a static bass, the changing harmonies fanning out over it. "American Berserk", written for Ohlsson this year, with its energetic syncopations and chunky chords cheerfully flouting the rules of traditional harmony, is in effect a tribute to the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow. Ohlsson had a ball and the audience seemed to like it.

Rachmaninov's arrangement of the scherzo from Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" sounded all the more delightful for providing such a contrast. And then Ohlsson played four of Rachmaninov's most popular Preludes, starting with the first and best known of all. It was a treat to hear these sonorous pieces – and indeed to see them – performed with such effective economy of effort: Ohlsson's arms moved only a minimal amount.

He seemed pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response, and lavished all his loving attention on two well-chosen encores, both by Chopin: the C sharp minor Mazurka, Op 50, and the E flat Waltz, Op 18.

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