Garrick Ohlsson performs a superb night of Liszt in Seattle

Garrick Ohlsson
Seattle Times

By Melinda Bargreen

The musician, a regular in the UW President's Piano Series, put his flawless technique on show on Wednesday night, to the delight of the discerning audience.


Concert pianists never need an excuse to program plenty of Liszt, that titan of the keyboard who composed some of the showiest — and most difficult — music ever written for the piano. But the 2011-12 season has been a veritable Liszt orgy, as pianists around the world have the wonderful excuse of commemorating the composer's 200th birthday.

The latest nod to Liszt here in Seattle came with the return of Garrick Ohlsson to the President's Piano Series, where he has been a popular regular over the years. An Ohlsson recital is always an intensely pleasurable experience: you sit back in your seat and wait for what he has to show you this time. It's always something new: a different take on a familiar piece, a performance that is faster or slower or quirkier than you've heard before, and a chance to venture more deeply into Liszt's sonic world.

No composer is quicker or more merciless to point out a pianist's technical inadequacies, but Ohlsson doesn't have any. If Wednesday night's recital had been immortalized as a live recording, Ohlsson would have precious little to tweak or fix. His command of such finger-busters as the Mephisto Waltz No. 1 left the Meany Theater audience members fanning themselves, then rising to their feet for one of those whistling, stomping ovations that showed how well Ohlsson had entertained this discriminating audience. The President's Piano Series attracts listeners who really know piano music, and when they aren't wowed by the artist, you'll hear a tepid smattering of applause and the occasional yawn. Not this time.

Ohlsson opened with Liszt's labyrinthine arrangement of Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, illuminating all the inner voices of the Fugue portion with unusual clarity. The Busoni "Fantasia and Fugue" arrangement of Liszt's massive "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam" found the pianist in rare form, giving an expansive, huge-scale performance in which every key change sounded like a fresh revelation.

Four Liszt pieces concluded the program: an intimate, picturesque reading of "Les Jeux d'eaux a la Ville d'Este"; the brilliant flutterings of "Feux Follets"; the heavy drama of "Les Funérailles"; and finally the Mephisto Waltz No. 1. The solitary encore couldn't have been more different from the mighty "Mephisto": an untitled 1865 "Klavierstück" (Piano Piece) in A-flat major that had a lyrical, improvisatory feel.

No wonder that for keyboard aficionados, Garrick Ohlsson is at the top of the Liszt.