What might it take to make a Rachmaninoff piano concerto look easy, as pianist Garrick Ohlsson did on Thursday evening at Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra?

Rachmaninoff with the Boston Symphony Orchestra19 Oct 2018

“An encyclopedic knowledge of the piano repertoire probably helps. Over his decades-long career, Ohlsson has made his name foremost as an interpreter of Chopin (to date, he’s the only American to win the gold medal at Warsaw’s International Chopin Piano Competition), but his repertoire spans the Classical period to the present day, with some unusual highlights, such as Busoni’s hour-plus behemoth of a piano concerto. Ohlsson might have a physical advantage with Rachmaninoff’s works as well. Being a very tall man with a large wingspan and huge hands, he doesn’t have to expend as much energy as a smaller musician might to traverse the keyboard.

However, the most important factor is security, both in knowledge of the score and in one’s own interpretation. Listening to Ohlsson’s self-possessed turn through Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed Piano Concerto No. 1 in F Sharp Minor, it was evident that he had that in spades. His grounded approach vastly differed from many Rachmaninoff interpreters, who frequently offer thrills in the form of flash, fire, and speed. In contrast, Ohlsson’s phrases sounded relaxed and almost contemplative no matter the tempo, and never swung into sluggishness. He turned up the heat with the first movement cadenza, attacking the keys with more urgency, but even so a sense of unhurried ease prevailed.”

Boston Globe

“After a stage re-set to bring on the Steinway, Garrick Ohlsson joined the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, op. 1. We think of Rachmaninoff as the apotheosis of Russian romanticism, abetted in this notion no doubt by recordings of the composer himself at the keyboard. Ohlsson began this work with big, chordal gestures in similar vein (although stricter tempo), but the concerto quickly took on a classicizing mien with lengthy passages of subdued restraint, as the piano took on the voice of limpid grace in the face of a more romantic, impassioned orchestra. Even as the writing for the piano becomes more idiomatically romantic, Ohlsson’s performance remained classical in style. I heard more of the middle voice here and not just the moments of big drama. By the second extended piano solo in the first movement, Ohlsson took on both classical and romantic gestures and phrasings, continuing the earlier conversation but now being conducted by the keyboard alone. The movement ended on an upswell, with applause. The minor-keyed horn intoned the opening of the Andante, recalling Tchaikovsky. Here the piano played with more restraint yielded an added depth of poignancy. By the concluding Allegro vivace, the piano took on the dual roles. The writing seems to anticipate Prokofiev. The surges and swells of the score sound out sonorously. Pauses are pregnant. Rachmaninoff’s tunesmithery takes on familiar soundscapes, and scampering passagework swells into a full-throttled finale. Commendably Ohlsson made a familiar piece fresh and by defying expectations insisted we listen carefully, fully, to what Rachmaninoff wrote, if not what he himself performed.”

The Boston Musical Intelligencer