Pianist Garrick Ohlsson cut his teeth on the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto. When he was 14, his Juilliard piano teacher told the boy to spend his summer learning “Rach #3”, because “If you learn it now, you’ll never be afraid of it.” (This might have been a common pedagogical line at the time. Apparently other young pianists were given the same advice.). Ultimately his career (now spanning more than 40 years) took off in other directions and his artistry became most closely associated with the music of Chopin and, more lately, of Liszt. But the Rachmaninoff has surfaced again (he released a recording in 2011) and, judging by his performance with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore on Friday, it’s about time.
In an entertaining and informative pre-performance conversation, Ohlsson and Alsop traced some of the music’s structures and emotional zigzags but kept returning to its technical challenges as if to prepare the audience for a struggle. But any technical struggles that Ohlsson had were overcome a long time ago, perhaps during that summer at age 14. This was a sunny reading. Its emotional highs were broad and intense. They moved fluidly but without urgency and they reveled in sensual colors. Quieter moments were not so much introspective as reflective. They suggested other possibilities — that the next time Ohlsson plays them he might do it a little differently. They made me want to hear that “next time.”
The orchestra sounded terrific and, for the most part, it partnered comfortably with the piano. The third movement syncopations could have fit together more smoothly, but balance was good and the low strings and the horns had a gorgeous outing.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.