At barely 50 min., Garrick Ohlsson's contribution to the Liszt bicentennial isn't exactly generous, but since the passing of Earl Wild and the sidelining of Byron Janis by premature arthritis, he ranks as America's senior virtuoso, so to speak. Ohlsson turned 74 this year, and his long career hasn't, I must confess, attracted me. I associate him with magnificent technique at the service of musicality that isn't original or inspired. But I know that others feel very differently. On this occasion the pianist offers a daring novelty, a 29-min. transcription for piano of Liszt's Fantasie and fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarum undam.
they are both keyboard instruments, but the organ is as different from the pianoforte as the harpsichord is from a concert grand. The pipe organ is essentially a wind instrument, with no variety due to touch on the keyboard. There are dozens of other differences, including the extensive array of foot pedals that organists employ ad the blasting cathedral sonority that the instrument produces. As in is Bach transcriptions, Busoni sets out here to give the illusion of enormous power, continuous tone production,, and endless legato of an organ. The result is virtuosic, and no one in the audience is likely to be ticking off how close to organ-laying the piece resembles.
The real question is whether anyone needs another long, rather doleful piece, capped by a knuckle-crunching 8-min. fugue from a composer who has already produced hundreds of such pieces for the piano. The mournful chorale is treated in the Fantasie section as an Adagio that creates a solemn atmosphere. The Fugue that follows is pure fireworks, with the customary fistfuls of octaves and arpeggios, made doubly dazzling since the pianist must keep the main lines of the fugue going at the same time. Ohlsson achieves all this, although I doubt that I would ever want to hear the score a second time. the best part of his performance is his air of seasoned, relaxed musicality. It elevates Liszt's idiom to something more appealing than blood and thunder under the velvet cover of religiosity.
Ohlsson brings the same seasoned assurance to the B Minor Sonata, where of course he faces decades of illustrious rivals. Thee isn't the electrifying effect made by keyboard giants when they are in the mood to spit fire. If you expect to sit on the edge of your seat - as I do with Horowitz, Zimerman, Richter, and Pollini in this work - you may be quite disappointed. Ohlsson's is a more self-reflective account, reaching for poetry and lyrical calm whenever he can. I'm attracted to such an interpretation, certainly more than I am to clattery banging, but in truth a complete B minor Sonata needs to inhabit both extremes of contemplation and fire-breathing. that's the special quality of this work, which despite the title of sonata comes off as an extended romantic rhapsody. Is Ohlsson's slow pacing and restraint the result of age? I won't venture to guess. From bar to bar I admired the poetry, but overall there was a meandering quality to his reading that lost my attention.
As a footnote, the piano is a good-sounding instrument that has been recorded superbly.