Wednesday 30 November 2011

Garrick Ohlsson: Handel, Brahms, Liszt, and Scriabin, 29 November 2011

Wigmore Hall

Handel – Suite no.2 in F major, HWV 427
Brahms – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op.24
Liszt – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, S 173/3
Scriabin – Trois Etudes, op.56
Fragilité, op.51 no.1
Piano Sonata no.5, op.53

It was not entirely clear what the two halves of this recital had in common, apart, that is, from pianist Garrick Ohlsson, though it was an attractive enough collection of pieces, even if performances only intermittently caught fire. Handel’s F major Suite – not the B-flat major Suite from which Brahms would take his theme – opened promisingly, the ‘Adagio’ first movement delicately Romantic, perhaps sounding more Bachian than one tends to hear (insofar as one hears Handel’s keyboard suites at all). The following ‘Allegro’ received a clean performance, a bit Gouldian for my taste, not least in its unyielding brightness. Murray Perahia imparts greater grace and depth to this repertoire. I missed a proper sense of momentum in the third movement ‘Adagio’, which was also occasionally heavy-handed, a besetting problem for a good part of the recital, The closing fugue certainly boasted contrapuntal clarity, though again, a greater willingness to yield might have elicited more grateful results.

Brahms’s Handel Variations followed. Again, Ohlsson opened promisingly, Handel’s Air actually sounding more elegantly idiomatic than much of the complete suite had done. The early variations set up a variable pattern that would be followed throughout: some finely characterised playing, some less so. For instance, the first variation sounded choppy and – that word again – unyielding, whereas its successor magically revelled in Brahms’s Schumannesque writing, the intimations of his later Haydn Variations wonderfully apparent. The third variation fell somewhere in between. I liked Ohlsson’s shaping of the composer’s Bachian reminiscences (the B-flat minor Prelude from Book I sprang to mind) in the fifth variation, whilst the eleventh, though it rippled pleasantly enough, somewhat lacked poetry. The rich tone lavished upon the thirteenth variation overcame a nearby intervention from a wristwatch chime. (Unforgivably, the same watch would intervene precisely an hour later in the second half.) However, the fourteenth suffered from an unduly abrupt ending: surely a case in which Brahms’s gruffness benefits from a little tempering. It was something of a tonal relief to reach G minor in the twenty-first variation, but execution remained prosaic, lacking fantasy, whilst the final, twenty-fifth variation sounded more heavy than joyous. Much the same could be said of the fugue, in which Ohlsson again declined to adopt a more yielding approach. There was much to be said for his structural grasp, the connection between variations and the theme clear throughout; yet man, even Brahms, cannot live on structure alone.

Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans sa solitude received an increasingly involving performance, though it laboured a little under a weighty opening not entirely free of the ponderousness of which Ohlsson’s sometime teacher, Claudio Arrau, often stood accused by his detractors (for me, quite unjustly). This was nevertheless preferable to mere flashiness, and there was much to enjoy in the richness of tone Ohlsson conjured from the piano: an excellent Steinway ‘demonstration’. He can sustain a line too, as became increasingly apparent. If the central section does not necessarily show Liszt at his most inspired, I have heard it sound considerably less prosaic than it did here. The remainder of the work permitted a degree of poetic fantasy often lacking elsewhere. There were, however, a few unfortunate harmonic hangovers that might have been alleviated by more careful pedalling. (Sometimes even Liszt’s own pedal markings need reinterpretation for a modern instrument.)

The first two of Scriabin’s three op.56 Etudes emerged both glittering and languorous, delicate enigmas vying with an apt degree of skittishness. (That watch alarm this time collaborated with someone towards the back of the hall endlessly rummaging in a plastic bag.) The third, however, emerged in glassy, even brutal tone. Laughter greeting its conclusion bewildered, for whatever accusations of excess one might hurl at Scriabin, a riotous sense of humour is not the most obviously founded candidate. Fragilité was a pleasant enough interlude, but the fifth sonata was clearly the (spiced, even perfumed) meat to this section. Ohlsson’s performance shared both the virtues and the vices of what had gone before. Yet, if his is hardly the most ingratiating of pianism, he exhibited a fine sense of form here, a requirement not always fulfilled in music that can often sound merely elusive, arguably incomprehensible. It was a pity that such elucidation was mitigated by a considerable degree of heavy-handed bludgeoning. As for the charmless Chopin encores, the less said the better.