Ohlsson Performs Centenary Scriabin Recital

Jeremy Reynolds, Staff Writer

After delivering a thunderous final arpeggio, pianist Garrick Ohlsson leapt from the keyboard to claim his accolades before the last notes of Alexander Scriabin’s fifth sonata had even finished reverberating through the hall. The wild enthusiasm of his listeners prompted Ohlsson to give not one but three encores after Tuesday night’s installment of the Artist Recital Series, which featured works for solo piano by Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert and Scriabin in Finney Chapel.


Ohlsson, who hails from White Plains, NY, began his studies at the Juilliard School at age 13. The only American pianist to have won the prestigious International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Ohlsson is widely recognized as a Scriabin expert. Ohlsson’s repertoire contains an array of works ranging from Chopin to Mozart to 21st-century compositions. He uses his impeccable technique to shape his phrases and packs recital halls across the globe.


Ohlsson began Tuesday’s program with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30, a work that features thematic material ranging from virtuosic arpeggios to reverent, hushed chorales. He delivered each contrasting melody with profound individuality, carefully shaping every voice within the sonic texture to express his interpretation of the German master’s music. With so much attention to detail, however, the pianist failed to present the work cohesively, as his focus on the independent motifs sacrificed the “bigger picture” of the piece’s emotional trajectory. Conversely, Ohlsson’s performance of Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, Der Wanderer, comprehensively represented the cyclical composition.


After introducing the first theme in a fiery burst of energetic technique, Ohlsson recaptured that same fervor at each recurrence of the theme throughout the four-movement work. Schubert based the sonata on one of his songs by the same title, and its repetition represents the wanderer’s search for the familiarity of home. Still, as in the Beethoven, his playing could have benefited from less variation in the expression of each phrase. Ohlsson’s constant rubato — an expressive variation of tempo — occasionally impeded the otherwise seamless flow of Der Wanderer, which Schubert wrote without any space between movements to encourage structural unity in performances.


Post-intermission, however, the artist settled into his niche and began to truly mesmerize his listeners. Ohlsson reclaimed the stage with a languorous performance of Scriabin’s Désir before standing to introduce his audience to the Russian composer, a classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff who was also influenced by Chopin. He explained that 2015 marks the centenary of Scriabin’s death and sketched out a brief biography punctuated with flashes of a delightfully dry wit. Ohlsson discussed how the first Scriabin sonata on the program (No. 10, which happens to be the composer’s last) reflects the Beethoven sonata with which the pianist began the evening. “Oddly enough, they both seem to be obsessed with trills…” he commented.

The 10th sonata comprises a single movement adorned with constant trills. Here, Olssohn created a vast range of emotion, from the nervously agitated tremolos to triumphant, soaring melodies. The pianist delivered Scriabin’s sinuous scalar passages and passionate blooms of color with complete mastery of the keyboard and the music. Though he performed the rest of the program from memory, Ohlsson chose to read this sonata from a score, perhaps on account of the meticulous detail with which Scriabin annotated the music. According to the evening’s program notes by Peter Laki, “One way to approach this piece is to read Scriabin’s unusual performance instructions, given in French, which look like a running commentary on the entire work.” With directions as varied as “with profound, veiled ardor” to “radiant voluptuousness” to “trembling, winged,” Ohlsson created an entire microcosm of emotion through the 10th sonata. This work was the unequivocal highlight of the evening.


The remainder of the program consisted of three shorter works also by Scriabin followed by the fifth sonata. Ohlsson delivered each of the miniatures with his customary polished energy before diving into a potent final sonata. As with the rest of the evening, Ohlsson differentiated between contrasting motifs with clear expression. His body language flared dramatically from purposefully virtuosic as he swept up and down the range of the keyboard to quietly introverted, barely seeming to breathe as he carefully voiced each chord and melody with a tender grace.


As Ohlsson revved up for the close of the piece, his gestures became increasingly wild until he jumped from the piano bench, grinning mischievously, just before the music sounded as if it were finished. He went on to surprise his enraptured audience with three short Scriabin études before exiting the stage to still-thunderous applause, no doubt leaving listeners craving more.