Review: Ohlsson returns for Chopin 

click to enlarge Pianist Garrick Ohlsson
  • Pianist Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson and Frédéric Chopin seem to be made for each other. A greater percentage of Chopin's works--mostly solo piano--have held the boards throughout the intervening decades than from any other composer you can name. And these include his two early piano concertos, the second of which (No. 1 in publishing order) was beautifully played on Friday by guest pianist Ohlsson and nicely "accompanied" by ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański and his mostly string players (the full orchestra is sparingly used). The last time our symphony performed the Polish-turned-Parisian composer's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11 in 2005, Ohlsson was at the keyboard.

Throughout the wide dynamic range of Chopin's Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11, Ohlsson's pianism: his finger-work, his chords, his virtuosity served the cause of the music in its context so perfectly it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it any better. In its first movement, memorable tunes, exquisite harmonies, varied rhythmic pulses--all hallmarks of Chopin's style--effused themselves into the listener as completely as is possible to imagine.

Lasting 42 minutes, the concerto is unusually long for that period (1830), its final two movements not quite holding up to the promise of the first one. This produced a consciousness of "length" before it ended. Ohlsson effectively rescinded that feeling by offering Chopin's very short--and very exquisite--Waltz in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 64 No. 2, as an encore. Here his use of rubato (tempo variance) in the second theme's repeat came across as pure poetry.

The Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, Op. 100 (1944) was the most ambitious of the seven Sergei Prokofiev wrote in that form. Joy seems to radiate throughout the Russian/Soviet composer's four movements. Controlling a large assemblage of forces, Urbański wove his way through its thematic thickets with dispatch.

The first movement, a broad sonata-form structure, has its principal theme recurring at the fourth movement's opening. The second, with its rapid tick-tock ostinato (continuously repeated figure), is a scherzo with a dance like "trio" section, building to a runaway climax. The third, using a slow three-note ostinato, is one I find the most difficult to process; it doesn't appear to take us anywhere we want to go. But the grandiose final movement surely does.

Throughout the symphony all the orchestral choirs, especially the brass, are called on to perform as brilliantly as any symphonic orchestration could demand, and our brass section met the challenge. Urbański, in fact, had all his players well prepared for this onslaught: good precision, good articulation, good tempo choices. Counting last weekend's Opening Night Gala, our young music director has batted a thousand so far this season. Sept. 26-28; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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Tom Aldridge

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