Grace Under Pressure
Avery Fisher Hall
George Frideric Handel: Suite # 2 in F
Franz Joseph Haydn: Variations in F Minor
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 32
Alexander Scriabin: Four Etudes, Op. 8; Poeme in F Sharp Major; Deux danses, Op. 73; Sonata # 5
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
For days now, in anticipation of Garrick Ohlsson’s recital at Avery Fisher, I have been hearing in my mind the Etude in D Sharp minor (#12) of Alexander Scriabin, the epitome of late Romanticism and the big gesture, anticipating the harmonic revolution to come. I knew that it was not on the program, but the prospect of this expansive artist performing an entire half of a concert of Scriabin thrilled me with anticipation and speculation: what would this particular sweeping melodic essay sound like in the extraordinarily large hands of a modern master? While a part of me was occupied with these thoughts this afternoon, I discovered an entirely new and surprising way of respecting this giant of the keyboard.
Not even considering the thirty odd years or so it takes to hone one’s skills to the point where one can even consider being a great concert artist, it takes at least two years to prepare an individual recital. The planning stages, wherein the program is set, must be completed long before the annual schedule is announced, and there must be some period of time in which the artist lives with the pieces intimately, eating, drinking and dreaming them until his mind and hands are but an extension of the music in question. All of this thought and practice is but a prelude to the moment of actual execution: like an Olympic figure skater, a pianist gets only one chance to present his finished product. Today, after a silent introduction of contemplation, Mr. Ohlsson began a stately reading of the Handel, only to have to stop about five measures in because of a screeching electronic device so loud that no one could have possibly continued. The artist apologized and waited once again, but the intrusion of this noise only engendered comments from the crowd as, ironically, neighbors discussed the rudeness of interrupting such a sonic experience with noise. Once some semblance of quietude was restored, Ohlsson began again and played through an initial outburst of the same whiny, metallic din, a child screaming, and one of the noisiest crowds in memory. But although this could have been a totally unpleasant experience, Ohlsson simply would not let that happen. His command of the situation and his dignified play captured our attention and slowly dispelled the chaos, shaping it instead into the most sublime of order.
Especially impressive were the deep penetration of the variations, one of those examples of late Haydn that sound so uncompromisingly modern and exhibiting a level of angst not normally associated with the deist world view, and the dignified pace of the Beethoven, a tempo difficult to sustain both interpretively and melodically. The entire second movement, in fact, was sublime, each measured thought following so logically upon its predecessor and so majestically played, revealing a profound sense of both the import and the heartbreak of the ultimate of the 32. At the interval, I ran into a pianist friend who was equally amazed at Mr. Ohlsson’s poetic sense and his composure under these trying conditions.
With great anticipation, we all returned for the Scriabin portion of the program. Again, Mr. Ohlsson sat for a time composing himself and then, just as he was about to intone the first notes of the first etude, that same child started screaming once again (we will leave for another time a discussion of whether to bring the tots to one of these events). There are many ways to react to such a moment, but Ohlsson’s solution was to laugh: not a little titter, mind you, but a bona fide Sir John Falstaff guffaw (for those who are not aware, Mr. Ohlsson is a very big man). His reaction led to amusement in the audience; the mood of intrusion was broken; we had all triumphed over adversity. This intuitive showman immediately launched into a devilishly skillful presentation of Scriabin, filled with dazzle and substance, Romanticism and panache, cinemascope technique and magisterial range. The final run from low to high notes in the Sonata literally pulled him right off of his piano bench, so that he ended this magnificently entertaining program already on his feet to take the first, well-deserved bow.
The intense applause reinforced the feeling that we had all been through something quite special, but, for me, the moment to remember was the third encore. After a charming piece of Mozart and a mildly askew Chopin waltz, each phrase played with a differing amount of rubato, Ohlsson announced that he would perform the very Scriabin etude that had been obsessing me of late and proceeded to do so in huge style, the sweeping gestures allowing this uncanny melody to grow to Titanic size before our very ears. A big, boffo finish and then the concert should have been over, but the crowd would have none of this and so an exhausted Garrick Ohlsson treated us to one more piece of Scriabin, but a little, quiet one so we would finally get the point that this wild ride was indeed over.
Frederick L. Kirshnit