Ohlsson dazzles in Prokofiev sonatas

February 11, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Wonderful -- sometimes even magical -- piano playing was the order of the evening throughout Garrick Ohlsson's recital Sunday in Shriver Hall. But Ohlsson's infallible fingers, gorgeous sound and powerful mind were probably heard to best advantage in Prokofiev's Sonata No. 8, the last and the greatest of the composer's triptych of "War" sonatas.

For the Sonata No. 8, keyboard virtuosity is not enough, as it is in the astonishing toccata-like finale of No. 7 or the explosive man-of-steel corner movements of No. 6. The opening of No. 8, for example, is more contemplative than energetic, and its dreamy languor sometimes evokes the erotically charged music of Wagner.

If this music is seductive to the ear, it is unfortunately all-too-seductive to most pianists, who often succumb to its luxuriousness with a relaxed, meandering gait.

But this listener cannot remember any pianist since Richter who has so captured the first movement's inevitable logic as well as its voluptuousness. The pianist's playing in the second movement was charming and charged with nostalgic atmosphere. The more purely virtuosic final movement was dazzling -- including a knockout conquest of the ferocious coda -- without compromising any of Prokofiev's sardonic wit.

Ohlsson's playing was just as beautiful in Beethoven's Sonata No. 16 in G major (Opus 31, No. 1) and Chopin's 24 Preludes. That his performances here were less persuasive than in the Prokofiev may be just a matter of taste, but -- to these ears -- he sounded more concerned with the beauty of individual details than with the music's narrative. Beethoven's Sonata No. 16 is a work filled with anticipations of Schubert, but it is more energetic and less well-manicured than the version Ohlsson gave us.

Because this pianist is so often a superlative interpreter of Chopin, that composer's 24 Preludes were also disappointing. Any pianist who can play the B-flat minor prelude in 62 seconds without dropping a note (as Ohlsson did) deserves congratulation; but one would have gladly accepted a smudged phrase or two for more of a sense of the wild rhythms that foreshadow the Sonata in B-flat minor.

The prelude in D-flat was not played too quickly by the pianist, but he nevertheless failed to articulate the music's sense of ennui. And while he played the final prelude in D minor with genuine symphonic sweep, the performance did not have the shattering emotional impact it has had in other hands.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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