Monday, February 12, 2007

Classic sonata form

You might think of Beethoven's sonatas as concert-hall warhorses - and sure enough, three or four of them are; but there are 32 in all - a vast, undiscovered country, if you will, stretching almost the length of the composer's career. The celebrated pianist Garrick Ohlsson (above, with friend) has, of late, been giving guided tours of this uncharted territory, and he landed in Jordan Hall last weekend for a sparkling all-Beethoven/all-sonata/all-the-time program that smartly balanced the well-known with the unknown.

Oddly, it was the familiar that proved least fetching. Ohlsson opened the evening with a reading of the "Pathétique" that was technically facile but seemed overconsidered, as if he were groping for Beethoven's voice - or perhaps some new approach to that voice. Did the pianist feel he had to "do" something with the "Pathétique"? If so, he wound up settling for an uneven blend of Haydn and Chopin , with some extra banging thrown in for good measure (the Steinway he was playing turned harsh at high volume).

But as he pushed on to new frontiers, Ohlsson warmed up, and seemed determined to simply showcase his own brilliant skill, while letting the music speak for itself. Beethoven was himself recognized as a superb pianist, and at times his writing for the instrument seems almost designed as challenge; but Ohlsson remained unfazed by even the most daunting of technical gauntlets, and at any rate in the lesser-known sonatas on the program (written a year after, and a year before, the "Pathétique") the great Ludwig Van seemed, if not exactly lighthearted, then at least boisterous and jocular. Ohlsson's bright, confident rendering of the playful Sonata No. 11 seemed to simply pour forth (broken only by the balanced melancholy he lent its Adagio), but this was nothing next to the fireworks of the tight little No. 6, which the pianist tore through at a blistering pace, even accelerating with fresh energy through the wicked fugue at its finale (sometimes, in fact, it seemed that Mr. Ohlsson only had trouble de-celerating).

In the closing piece of his program, the "Les Adieux" sonata (No. 26, the latest piece in the evening), Ohlsson again found an exquisite poise between sobriety and joy; the piece, inspired by the Austrian imperial family's flight from, and eventual return to, war-torn Vienna, is neatly balanced between resignation, anticipation, and celebration, and Ohlsson beautifully evoked all three voices, reaching his most blinding speeds yet in the final Vivacissimamente.

His encores - from Sonatas No. 5 (the "Little Pathétique") and 25 (the "Cuckoo") - were in the same effervescent mood, and the witty "missed" notes of the "Cuckoo" - more ironic than usual, given this pianist's technical mastery - drew outright laughter from many in the audience, who were soon on their feet to bid Ohlsson an appreciative adieu themselves.

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