Garrick Ohlsson is an elegant pianist with a prodigious technique, and it is evident that he takes great joy in music-making.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson highlights 150 years of music28 Jan 2018

Garrick Ohlsson is an elegant pianist with a prodigious technique, and it is evident that he takes great joy in music-making. These qualities resulted in a beautiful recital Saturday evening in Mechanics Hall under the auspices of Music Worcester.

The program spanned more than 150 years of the piano repertoire, from early Beethoven through Romantic-era Schubert to avant garde Scriabin. There were so many highlights that it is difficult to choose.

Ohlsson selected Beethoven’s Sonata opus 13 #8, named by the composer himself as “Pathetique,” to open the evening’s program. He gave a straightforward reading of this familiar composition, with keen attention to a wide range of dynamics and elegant phrasing. His voicing allowed melodies to be clearly heard and inner voices to illuminate the ever-changing harmonies.

Before performing a group of five compositions by Alexander Scriabin, Ohlsson gave a short and humorous biography of the Russian composer. Early in his career Scriabin was influenced by the music of Chopin, and his music is easily accessible. In the second stage of his composing career, he rejected the usual practice of basing chords on the interval of a third; instead he built his chords on intervals of a fourth, a push toward eliminating a sense of tonality or a place of repose. In his third stage, key signatures were omitted entirely, and his music became completely atonal.

The five pieces Ohlsson played represented all three of these three periods, and they were arranged to juxtapose the music of one period with another. In the Etude opus 65 #1 from 1912 it is impossible to identify a tonal center or organizing rhythm, giving the Etude an improvisatory quality.

This was followed by and contrasted with Etude opus 8 #10 from 1894; it has a key signature and is clearly in a major key. Prelude opus 59 #2, which bears the direction “Sauvage belliqueux,” was just that – wild and warlike – with percussive chords and loud dynamics.

This was contrasted with Poème opus 3 #1, which had a dreamy and languid quality and could easily have been mistaken as a work by Debussy. Finally, there was the overwhelming Sonata opus 53 #5, a huge one-movement work, which is atonal and highly chromatic and contains diabolically difficult rhythms. The mood changes constantly throughout the piece, with such performing instructions such as stravaganza, impetuoso, tumultuoso and fantasta. The performance was a tour de force that brought the audience to its feet and a smile to Ohlsson’s face.

The monumental Sonata #21 in Bb by Franz Schubert was the sole piece after intermission. The Sonata is in four movements, the first movement alone lasting more than 20 minutes. Ohlsson played the beautifully simple opening melody as though from a great distance, gradually increasing the intensity until, at its repeat, it became rich and majestic.

The second movement, which is in three-part form, opens with another lyrical Schubertian melody and then uses a more assertive variant of the first movement theme in the second section, adding some cohesiveness to this otherwise sprawling work. A lilting and playful Scherzo makes up the third movement; and a rondo, with a chipper little repeating tune, ends the sonata. It was an amazing, sensitive and altogether beautiful performance.

As an encore to appease the clamoring audience, Ohlsson delighted with Chopin’s Waltz opus 64 #1.

Joyce Tamer, Telegram