MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Garrick Ohlsson’s Seattle Recital

My ears and nerves are still buzzing from the excitement of last night’s recital by the always-dependable Garrick Ohlsson (at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall). What generous programs he offers: Beethoven’s Op. 109 Sonata, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy (D760), a triptych of selections by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata in B minor. And as if that weren’t enough, two superbly characterized Chopin waltzes for encores: the Op. 18 Grand Valse Brillante and the Waltz in C-sharp minor (Op. 64, no. 2).

I tend to think of Ohlsson as one of today’s least pretentious and fussy pianists, an artist to be counted on to give performances that are filling and satisfying. Of course that’s possible only because of his utterly confident technique — that left hand! — and his deep knowledge and love of the repertoire. What seems at times to be a “straightforward” approach turns out to reveal subtle insights. In the miracle of late Beethoven, for instance, he was able to explore different facets of the last movement’s variations (the new angle on the ultra-minimal two-note motif over which Beethoven obsesses in the first movement) without seeming to short-shrift the larger architecture beauty.

The Schubert Fantasy emerged as it should: a virtuoso showpiece on the surface, sure, but far more exhilarating for its sheer scope of invention and the pleasure Schubert takes in the powers of transformation of a basic idea. Ohlsson left no doubt as to why the next generation of Romantics fell so deeply in love with this spectacular but anomalous example of Schubertian ambition.

The Chopin Sonata may have been the most satisfying interpretation among these three well-known works. What struck me as especially successful was Ohlsson’s understanding of Chopin’s rhythmic articulation, both in his swooningly beautiful skeins of melody and in the robust, hell-bent momentum of the finale. But this didn’t come across as an affected exaggeration, or at the expense of those other aspects essential to this magnificent score. The whole picture is always in view – it’s just that it resembles getting a higher resolution, more dpi for clarity and detail.

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)

Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)

And then there were the pieces by the early-twentieth-century American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Two of the Roman Sketches, Op. 7, from 1916 (“The Fountain of the Acqua Paola” and “The White Peacock”) and the Scherzo from his Op. 6 Fantasy Pieces (1913). I found these to be an utterly delightful discovery. Hints of Griffes’s infatuation with then-new French music abound, but there’s something fresh about it all. The killer-energy Scherzo made for a nice cross-link with the Schubert.

Ohlsson recently released a recording devoted to this fascinating artist who died very young, a victim of the influenza pandemic. A gay man from Elmira, New York, Griffes was still of the generation when studying abroad was the done thing to gain any cred as a “classical music” composer.

Here’s what Aaron Copland had to say about this predecessor (in 1952, 32 years after Griffes’s death):

Charles Griffes is a name that deserves to be remembered … What he gave those of us who came after
him was a sense of the adventurous in composition, of being thoroughly alive to the newest trends in
world music and to the stimulus that might have derived from that contact.

Review (c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: Beethoven, piano, review, Schubert


%d bloggers like this: