A night at the pictures

February 16, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Pictures are what American pianist Garrick Ohlsson had in mind for his recital last night, the first of the International pianists in Recital concerts for 2016 in the Sydney City Recital Hall, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

His program comprised two long works about paintings. The first was Goyescas by Granados, not heard as often as the second, Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. But before we got started on the big double bill, Ohlsson warmed up with a short, unremarkable piece by Granados, Oriental from 12 Danzas espanolas. This set the Spanish idiom and enabled Ohlsson to befriend the piano, which was to take quite a pounding by the time he took his final bow.

Granados (1867-1916) was inspired to write Goyescas by fellow Spaniard Goya’s paintings. Some of the six pieces in the set directly refer to a particular painting while others are more general impressions. With their lightening modulations, bursts of complex harmony and suggested guitar rhythms, they are unmistakeably Spanish, joining the style genre of Isaac Albeniz and Manuel de Falla. And they are extremely difficult to bring off.

Although Ohlsson is much admired for his Chopin, as evidenced by two of his encores of waltzes, he is equally at home with Spanish music. He took tricky mordents in his stride and heightened the romantic excitement with beautifully executed pauses. Goyescas is a big ask for any pianist because it calls for maintaining rhythmic control while dealing with fistfuls of intervening notes and also bringing out a melody. In Ohlsson’s case, his technique was not only up to the task, but he managed to produce multiple voices through the turmoil. In doing so, he never seemed hurried or harassed.

The best-known piece of the Goyescas set is The Maiden and the Nightingale, which is often played as a stand-alone solo. Ohlsson made it his own with certainly the best live, and possibly the best-recorded performance I’ve heard. The rest of the set was in the same class: an absolute delight.

Pictures at an Exhibition came after intermission and signalled a change to Russian romanticism. Mussorgsky’s inspiration came from the work of

Russian painter, Viktor Hartmann. Mussorgsky’s evocations of the paintings are direct references, separated in most cases by a promenade theme which appears in various guises as we are walked though the exhibition.

Oddly, the orchestration by Ravel in 1920 put the piece on the map and only after that did pianists include the original piano version in their repertories. Now the orchestral and piano versions are both popular.

Each of the group of eleven pictures is vivid in it’s own way and gives the performer opportunities to explore different styles. After a triumphant Goyescas, I anticipated that Ohlsson would emphatically nail the Mussorgsky but it didn’t quite work out that way. The opening promenade went off at a pace that was more a mechanical trot than an art exhibition stroll. While there were passages of brilliance among the evocations, it left an uneven impression.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Gnome revealed Ohlsson’s technical power but when we moved to The Old Castle we got just notes. Children Quarrelling at Play was pleasingly accurate and lively, as was the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. There were stirring moments in Limoges Market too, but Ohlsson tackled Oxen with such ferocity I thought the piano might collapse. Garrick is a big fella whose volume has earthquake potential, but it has to be handled with care. Having said that, I loved him laying into the Great Gate of Kiev to bring Exhibition to a shattering close.

At sixty-seven Ohlsson is showing no sign of slowing down and is popular among Australian audiences who like too be entertained as well as educated. When he sits at the piano, only his arms and hands move. There is no gymnastic display that is often the case with his contemporaries. And on this occasion he drew a good crowd for the Recital Hall venue that pianists find virtually impossible to fill. Among its number was his long time friend and colleague, Vladimir Ashkenazy, who is in town Beethoven-bound, and came along to applaud a talent he obviously admires.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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