Garrick Ohlsson’s towering account of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto was followed by a ferocious rendition of Elgar’s Second Symphony

BBC Philharmonic/Mena review – monumental and authoritative17 Nov 2014

If there were a Mount Rushmore-styled monument to American Chopin interpreters, whose image would appear on the side of the mountain? Murray Perahia would have to be up there along with Emanuel Ax. But Garrick Ohlsson, who in 1970 became the only American to take first prize at the international Chopin competition, might tower above them all.

Ohlsson, who carries an air of senatorial authority at the keyboard, has a countenance that demands to be carved in stone. For some people, Chopin means moonlight and mystery; for Ohlsson, the composer clearly means business. His reading of the First Piano Concerto was not wholly anti-romantic – the contours of the central larghetto were softened by a fine degree of mist – but Ohlsson is an articulate, admirably precise pianist who prefers to keep the structure visible at all times.

First performed in 1911, Elgar’s Second Symphony was dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII; and while its lugubrious character has often been interpreted as an elegy for the passing of the Edwardian era, hearing the symphony in the context of Armistice week made Elgar’s writing seem uncannily prophetic. The largo, in which a plaintive solo oboe floats upon a sea of grief, sounded like a prediction of the mass mourning to come, while the ferocity unleashed by Juanjo Mena in the rondo seemed to push the orchestra ever closer to the edge, as if presaging a world poised on the brink of disaster.

It was heartening to see the hall full of children as part of the BBC Philharmonic’s family ticketing scheme, and encouraging to think that Witold Lutoslawski’s Symphonic Variations will be the first live experience of classical music many in the audience will have heard. Lutoslawksi’s short introduction to tonal colour is the orchestral equivalent of opening up a paintbox and diving in: there can be few pieces more likely to make a convert for life.

By Alfred Hickling
The Guardian
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