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Ohlsson Falters, But de Waart Continues Mastery With MSO

Classical Review

Feb. 1, 2011
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Pianist Garrick Ohlsson is one of the most accomplished and lasting veterans on the concerto circuit. I don’t recall how often I have heard him play over the years, but surely several to many times. His big guy virility at the keyboard and aesthetic grasp have always been impressive. Considering all this, it was surprising that his performance last Friday evening with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was less than satisfying.

Continuing the orchestra’s schedule of all the Beethoven piano concertos this season, Ohlsson played the last, Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”). The audience liked it much better than I did. The best playing came in the third movement, with its spirited opening, delivered with full-bodied gusto and precision. Much of the rest I found to be uneven, with unfocused phrasing at times, and tone that was not always flattering to the MSO Steinway. The piano, which has sounded so good under the hands of so many pianists since its acquisition a couple of years ago, somehow did not seem compatible with Ohlsson’s playing. For the first time I noticed that it was slightly out of tune in the high treble, which did not help.

I was rooting for Ohlsson all along, hoping he would live up to my memories. Alas, it did not happen. Most puzzling of all, the performance did not seem to come from a clearly intended, internal place in the artist. Beyond technique, this is, of course, the secret of any good performance. Something was missing. I found the same to be true in his encore, the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathtique” Sonata.

Conductor Edo de Waart continues to show his mastery in the orchestra’s evolution to ever more sophistication in sound. Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) was insightfully well shaped, and more convincing in this performance than is often the case with this piece. Clarity is a high value of de Waart’s, and this music very much needs it. A tight, clean Academic Festival Overture by Brahms began the program. My only quibble is that the final climax was a bit more restrained than it might have been.


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