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Two masters of keyboard at a peak

07.21.10
Garrick Ohlsson
Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter McCallum

Garrick Ohlsson's all-Chopin program, commemorating that composer's bicentenary year, displayed an approach that was magisterial and meticulous, brilliantly clear in texture yet able to conjure with the obscure depths of sound.

The pinnacle was a magnificent performance of the Sonata in B minor, Opus 58 (1844), written when Chopin was only 33 but just five years from death.

Before that, Ohlsson gave us a chance to see his technical mastery, care for detail, disciplined musical discernment and, above all, his glowing, finely calibrated sound, whether in limpid cantabile passages or in moments of shattering tempest.

The Impromptu in F sharp minor had a rich and noble depth of sound with lightness in the rapid final passages. In the Ballade in A flat, Opus 47, and the F minor Fantasy, Opus 49, Ohlsson's exactitude in realising textures and the desire for tempo consistency resulted in speeds that, for me, were too slow. The performances might have been ponderous were it not for the tone quality he draws from the piano.

This same care drew highly distinctive readings of three mazurkas, with a tendency to pause between phrases that would have inhibited momentum except for his magnetic musical focus. The Scherzo in C sharp minor, which can often sound like a clatter of virtuosic emptiness, was spacious and strong. In the hymn-like second section, its phrases interleaved with decoration like pealing bells, Ohlsson drew out and pulled back phrases in a way that threatened forward movement but had a peacefully transcendent gait.

In the second half, the Barcarolle in F sharp minor, opus 60 lapped peacefully and the Mazurka in C sharp minor, Opus 50, No 3 gave a more extended view of his gifts as a miniaturist, as revealed in the first half.

When he reached the sonata, Ohlsson was so thoroughly in his stride that it was one of those performances where listeners missed scarcely a note. The quiet, richly complex slow movement and the sinewy gallop of the finale were rare experiences indeed.