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Music review: Garrick Ohlsson at Strathmore Hall

By Joe Banno,

Handel himself might not have recognized his Keyboard Suite No. 2 in F the way pianist Garrick Ohlsson played it at his Strathmore Hall recital — sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society — on Tuesday, but he surely would have been enthralled by what he heard.

Embracing all the expressive potential of his modern piano, and (especially in the adagio movements) slowing the music into a probing, introspective deconstruction, Ohlsson’s reading felt closer to the starkness of late Beethoven and Schubert than to what Handel would have been accustomed to hearing on harpsichords of his time.

The unfailingly beautiful tonal variety the pianist found in the score was very special indeed, and his exploratory approach made it sound at times as if the music were being composed under his fingers.

Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel followed immediately on the program. It would have been intriguing to hear Handel’s Keyboard Suite No. 1 rather than the Suite No. 2 — as Brahms used the final movement of that first suite as the basis for his Variations — but no matter: Ohlsson did a fine job of linking the stately formality in Brahms’s initial statement of the Handel theme to the Handel suite he had just played, before plunging into the Romantic lushness of the variations. Ohlsson eliminated pauses between most of the 24 variations, creating a constantly shifting tapestry of mood and musical invention. Yet even when the expressive contrasts between variations were at their most extreme, the pianist’s care in phrasing and tempo choices, as well as his ability to find compositional links between one movement and the next, made the progression of ideas in this work (which can sound fragmented in less-skilled hands) seem inevitable.

The all-Chopin second half of the program brought even more pleasure. Ohlsson has always shown a unique mix of head and heart, of immense control and deeply felt emotion in this composer’s music. Rather than slather a single style over works that tend to be as mercurial in their construction as they are in their emotional temperature, Ohlsson allows his interpretive response to shift along with the music.

In the structured opening of the Sonata No. 3, for example, or in the rigidly martial material in Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3, or in much of the shapely melodic writing of the Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op. 60, Ohlsson wisely emphasized musical architecture and a clear through-line of thought. But when the big melodies blossomed in those works (or in two waltzes that were performed as encores), he allowed a freely rhapsodic style to blossom, sometimes starting a phrase with full-throated expansiveness, then gradually fining it down to an intimate whisper.

This is a pianist who applies rubato so organically that the subtle tuggings at the tempo sound as natural as breathing, and his refusal to barnstorm lets the music’s inherent poise and elegance show. Ohlsson understands the Classicist, the philosopher, the virtuoso and the hopeless Romantic in Chopin, and, on Tuesday, he allowed us to hear all of them.

Banno is a freelance writer.

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