Alice Tully Hall
Franz Schubert (trans. Liszt): Four Songs
Franz Schubert: "Wanderer" Fantasie
Franz Liszt: Valse Caprice #6 (after Schubert); Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude; Funerailles; Mephisto Waltz #1
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Like the Augean stables the corners of the Lisztian repertoire were cleaned out this year by a modern Hercules, large in both physical and pianistic stature. Garrick Ohlsson learned his craft from the immortal Claudio Arrau, particularly the technique of letting gravity do most of the work and this emphasis on horizontal energy rather than vertical has allowed him to traverse the virtuoso repertoire with seeming ease. At his first concert at Alice Tully this year he performed flawlessly the amazing double feat of the Liszt Sonata in B Minor and The Goldberg Variations of Bach, using his own Bosendoerfer grand. For his second foray he explored the relationship of Liszt and Beethoven on a Steinway which obviously made him uncomfortable as he made many obvious mistakes which only seemed to mutate exponentially as he became somewhat rattled. It was comforting for me (and undoubtedly for him) that he chose to play the most sensitive of the three concerts with his own instrument once again and from the first notes we both felt more relaxed.
One of the many important accomplishments for music history of Franz Liszt was his introduction of the Schubert Lieder to the general public. His piano transcriptions were best sellers of those halcyon days and the sound of Schubert in the home multiplied rapidly without the need of a first class singer. In his recitals, Liszt often used the poignant melodies of the Viennese master to balance the demonic side of much of his own material. Mr. Ohlsson, very good at shaping an intelligent program, played four of these transcriptions, including the haunting Staendchen from Schwanengesang and the inspiration for the major piece of the afternoon, Der Wanderer.
There were four types of waltzes in the nineteenth century. The concert waltz, made popular by Chopin, was a poetic essay in three quarter time with a heavy dose of rubato that precluded its use in the ballroom. The dancing waltz was nurtured by Johann Strauss Sr. (and later Jr.). Schubert was the master of the third type: the Waltz Triste. It is forever our image of the misshapen runt, probably unclean and certainly diseased, sitting at his personal piano imagining life on the dancefloor and the happy world ultimately denied to him. His is the dance of the wallflower and none is more poignant than the Valse Caprice reworked by Liszt as the #6. Mr. Ohlsson performed this piece masterfully, using just the slightest touch of rubato to increase the melancholy to an almost excruciating level. His traversal of the "Wanderer" Fantasie was also first rate, with a gorgeous slow section (they are not really movements but serve the functions of them) and a memorable clarion fugue at the finish. By intermission we knew that this Goliath was back at the top of his game.
Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude is without question my favorite piece by Liszt and I tend to have very high standards when it comes to its performance. Mr. Ohlsson met them all, especially in his gentle phrasing of the main melody, often played too bombastically by lesser lights. Funerailles is one of the most exciting pieces of pianistic program music in the repertoire, anticipating the depictions of brutal armies marching that became a signature device of Shostakovich. The work is subtitled October 1849 and refers to two very sad events in the consciousness of Liszt. This was the month that saw the death of Frederic Chopin (parenthetically a major concert is planned in October 1999 in New York to commemorate this event) and also the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by the Austrian army, who sadistically executed the Hungarian generals who had been handed over by the Russians as prisoners of war (one of these generals died of a heart attack while waiting in line to be executed and so the Austrians hanged his corpse). As a native son of Hungary, Liszt was devastated to be living in Vienna and the quotes in the left hand from the "Heroic" Polonaise of Chopin have a fervent double meaning. Again Ohlsson played brilliantly, leaving us all in a state of breathless excitement.
Capitalizing on that state, he hardly acknowledged our applause before launching into the fourth type of nineteenth century waltz, the Waltz Diabolique, in this case the Mephisto #1, one of the most difficult pieces in the entire repertoire. Who does this man think he is, Horowitz? His dexterity was certainly reminiscent of this great immortal as was his choice of difficult program. Of course the technique is entirely different but the tenor of the recital made one think of the glorious days of the young Russian and his early years in America.
For encores, Ohlsson gave us the haunting Valse Oubliee #1 and a leonine performance of the finger-breaking Transcendental Etude #10. Don't ever let anyone tell you that the choice of piano is overrated. Ohlsson and his Bosendoerfer were one glorious instrument today and it was great for us all that this wanderer was home again.
This program was part of the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center. To find out more about their schedule you may consult their website at www.lincolncenter.org (next season's concerts are announced there).
Frederick L. Kirshnit