What might it take to make a Rachmaninoff piano concerto look easy, as pianist Garrick Ohlsson did on Thursday evening at Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra?
An encyclopedic knowledge of the piano repertoire probably helps. Over his decades-long career, Ohlsson has made his name foremost as an interpreter of Chopin (to date, he’s the only American to win the gold medal at Warsaw’s International Chopin Piano Competition), but his repertoire spans the Classical period to the present day, with some unusual highlights, such as Busoni’s hour-plus behemoth of a piano concerto. Ohlsson might have a physical advantage with Rachmaninoff’s works as well. Being a very tall man with a large wingspan and huge hands, he doesn’t have to expend as much energy as a smaller musician might to traverse the keyboard.
However, the most important factor is security, both in knowledge of the score and in one’s own interpretation. Listening to Ohlsson’s self-possessed turn through Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed Piano Concerto No. 1 in F Sharp Minor, it was evident that he had that in spades. His grounded approach vastly differed from many Rachmaninoff interpreters, who frequently offer thrills in the form of flash, fire, and speed. In contrast, Ohlsson’s phrases sounded relaxed and almost contemplative no matter the tempo, and never swung into sluggishness. He turned up the heat with the first movement cadenza, attacking the keys with more urgency, but even so a sense of unhurried ease prevailed. Lashing orchestral accents, cued by BSO associate conductor Ken-David Masur, provided a sparkier counterbalance to the soloist.
In the slower second movement, Ohlsson went for subtle, flowing presence over dramatic build, his piano murmuring under the orchestra’s languid phrases in mellow triple time. The third and final movement featured the soloist’s most brilliant passages, although emotion never overwhelmed attention to detail. Seeming as excitable as Ohlsson was unshaken, Masur turned up the orchestra’s wattage, jumping on the podium with his baton whipping. As an encore, Ohlsson offered another piece by Rachmaninoff, a crashing rendition of the Prelude in C Sharp Minor. With this weekend’s performances, Ohlsson has performed all of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos with the BSO.
The rest of the concert belonged to dance music. John Harbison’s “Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra)” was performed in celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday. The lushly dissonant opening section conveyed melancholy amid gleaming excess, and saxophonist Ryan Yuré smoothly carried a melody that could’ve belonged to a Jazz Age pop tune. It ended all too quickly.
After intermission, Masur led the orchestra through a neat mix of excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” Each was given a transparent, eloquent reading, from the giddy excitement of “Juliet the Young Girl” to the ominous march of “Montagues and Capulets,” the mischief of “Masks,” the sober lyricism representing Friar Lawrence, and the careening fight scene of “The Death of Tybalt,” in which the cellists slapped their strings with the wood side of their bows. There may not exist a more simple yet effective device to indicate the clash of swords.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Oct 18 (repeats Oct. 20 and Oct. 23). 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.