By Michael Morton-Evans
The touch was as light as a feather as American pianist Garrick Ohlsson teased the pianissimo opening out of Franz Schubert’s Impromptu in C minor, the first of his Opus 90 four impromptus. It set the scene for what was to be a wonderfully intimate recital at the City Recital Hall. Was this to be a mellow evening of graceful melody? For that’s what the Schubert impromptu is based on, a warm A flat major melody that rides on top of triplet arpeggios in first the left and then the right hand. It’s tricky stuff, but Ohlsson makes it look oh so easy.
Then came the opening of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, with its one or two finger start. Is the pianist dozing off? But no. Within seconds the feather fingers have swiftly turned into butterflies in the difficult prestissimo section, then from there to carefully controlled sledgehammers and back to feathers again. From this startling beginning Liszt developed three major themes, one of which, I have to say, must surely have been inspiration for Claude-Michel Schönberg when writing the main theme for Les Misérables. There’s lots of Romantic fire and spontaneity in the middle and plenty of room for the performer to show off, after all this is Liszt isn’t it? But Ohlsson does it all in such a gentlemanly way.
After the interval, a delightful, but somewhat derivative, new commission from the young Tasmanian composer Thomas Misson called Convocations. It must be hard to write to order, and I couldn’t help feeling that the work would have benefited from more Misson and less Liszt. Nevertheless, here’s yet another Australian musical talent to cherish.
The end of the concert consisted of three of Alexander Scriabin’s Etudes, heavily reminiscent in part of his musical hero Chopin; the first of his two well-known Poems; and then the dazzlingly confusing Sonata No 5 in F sharp. Like much of the composer’s later life this is an example of his ever-increasing obsession with his own creative powers. He was deeply into mysticism, believed his music could put the world to rights, and when World War One broke out in 1914 he saw it as his personally directed apocalypse. Ohlsson’s steers his audience with precision through delicate harmonies that seem to wander about aimlessly, but then work their way to heated outbursts, until finally, in the end, just as we feel a well-earned resolution coming, he throws the audience up into the cosmos where it vanishes without trace.
Peace is restored by an encore with Ohlsson playing one of his specialities, Chopin’s Nocturne No 2 in E flat. Nobody today plays Chopin better and the good news is that he will be back in Sydney at the City Recital Hall on Saturday, June 17th at 2pm with a programme of Debussy, Barber and lashings of Chopin. Another brilliant Musica Viva concert not to be missed.
Tickets are available by calling (02) 8394 6666 or online at https://tickets.musicaviva.com.au