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Garrick Ohlsson’s Two Hands: Where the Poles of Romanticism Meet…Schubert and Scriabin at Tanglewood

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Garrick Ohlsson’s Two Hands: Where the Poles of Romanticism Meet

Schubert’s Summer Journey, concert 4 (August 8, 2017 in Ozawa Hall)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784
Piano Sonata in A major, D.959

Scriabin:
Etudes op. 8 no. 10, op. 65 no. 1
Prelude op. 59 no. 2
Poème op. 32 no. 1
Sonata no. 5 op. 53

Encores:
Scriabin, Piece op. 2 no. 1
Etude op. 8 no. 12
Etude op. 42 no. 3

Schubert is considered an early romantic composer, but that does justice neither to his personal voice nor to the amazingly compressed stylistic development that took place right up to his death at the age of 31. Compared to his older contemporaries John Field and Carl Maria von Weber, Schubert the instrumental composer was a classicist, striving to emulate Beethoven in his increasingly masterful command of large forms; but in all of his music, he was also a fully developed romantic composer, squeezing feeling out of every note, often with the most original conceptions of sound and expressiveness.

Scriabin straddled the late romantic and early modern eras, and there is a sharp divide in his oeuvre between earlier tonal and later atonal compositions, evidence of his own rapid evolution up to his early death at age 43. Once again, the rough assignment of periods overlooks important individual nuances. Ten years younger than Debussy, Scriabin developed his own personal form of impressionism mingled with the fundamental romantic influence of Chopin. There is little relationship to the music of his older Russian colleagues Musorgsky and Tchaikovsky, or his contemporary Rachmaninov, no specific “Russian” flavor; instead, a very personal voice is present even in his op. 2 no. 1, written at age 15 and played as the first of Garrick Ohlsson’s three encores. This is a voice that remained throughout his career, despite his evolving harmonic language. As with Schubert, Scriabin’s voice is saturated with intensity of feeling, but without the least trace of or aspiration toward classicism; in fact, there probably has never been a more anticlassical composer. Scriabin picks up Chopin’s harmonic inventiveness, his chromatic instability, and runs with it. It would not be appropriate to say he runs away with it since Chopin had already done that in places like his astonishing E-flat minor Prelude or the finale of his Second Sonata. But these were exceptional moments for Chopin; in Scriabin’s music, such disorienting harmonic materials and extreme emotional states became the norm.

Ohlsson’s articulate program note indicates that he has thought out the relationship of these two composers, and his approach to performing each one bears that out. But I suspect this juxtaposition was also brought about by his simple desire to play a lot of Scriabin, including the three encores demanded by the enthusiastic patrons. These performances exhibited a wild, in-the-moment feeling of excitement and even abandon. (At the final moment of Sonata no. 5 he leaped away from the piano as if receiving an electric shock.) In fact, the two composers elicited playing that could almost have come from two different pianists, were it not for Ohlsson’s characteristically finely graded and firmly delineated touch (not to speak of his total control and mastery in all the works).

His Schubert was approached from the direction of its classical framework: Ohlsson exhibited exceptional awareness and control over the macro-rhythmic structure that is so crucial to this composer. It is tempting to consider Schubert’s phrasing as ‘square’ since he so often uses symmetrical question-and-answer periods. But this leads to asymmetry and drama on a higher structural level, that is, in stringing together phrases and whole groups of phrases in such a way as to create surprise, forward momentum, and ultimately, large-scale dramatic forms. All this was in evidence in the steady, unhurried, beautifully proportioned and subtly modulated rhythmic pulse, never disrupted by any concessions to technical difficulty (as if there were none in this music, which is simply not the case). This was also apparent in the smaller-scale Sonata in A minor from 18231 but became compellingly powerful in the late and monumentally proportioned Sonata in A major, composed a month before Schubert’s death.

The other Garrick Ohlsson, the one who performed Scriabin, eschewed the slow steady beat of the phrases in favor of a completely flexible and improvisatory sense of rhythm, as if responding to new currents emotion at every moment, with rushes of energy alternating unpredictably with moments of quiet poetry. While tonality and Chopin loomed large in the earlier works, Scriabin’s relative extremism had taken over, especially in the Prelude op 59, no. 2, marked “Savage, Belligerent,” and performed that way to the hilt, as well as in the entire single-movement Sonata no. 5, which runs to about 12 minutes.[1] 2 This approach highlighted the extreme flexibility of Scriabin’s phrase structure in the sense that it was pushed into the background, more in the later than the earlier works. In striving for greater intensity this music moves in the directions of wild eroticism, ecstatic intoxication and harsh brutality, often whipping back and forth within moments of each other. The surface of the music is so agitated that the underlying formal strategies become opaque; in fact, the main dialectic is between agitation and stasis, but any intellectual recognition of these elements is beside the point for the listener. The composer is clearly seeking to drown us in sensation, and Ohlsson’s playing here possesed a kind of wizardry: clearly in total control, at the same time and paradoxically he seemed to be channeling the untrammeled and febrile personality of the composer-pianist.

While the programming emphasized contrast, it also acknowledged kinship. Ohlsson’s notes are clear about this: “As an entry point, perhaps compare the existential nightmare of the middle of the second movement of Schubert’s A major piano sonata with the scary world of Scriabin’s Opus 65, No. 1 Etude; the Opus 59 No. 2 Prelude … [etc]. Here these two geniuses…speak to each other’s worlds across the19th century.” I’m not sure how much the later composer spoke to the earlier one, but Schubert’s existential nightmare certainly looks ahead, and there really is nothing like it in Schubert’s other music; even “Der Doppelgänger,” published posthumously in Schwanengesang (to be heard in program no. 8 of this series) offers a different kind of dark existentialism born of a stark rigidity of feeling. In the sonata, Schubert unleashes a hysterical and despairing outburst of amorphous and almost random piano figuration wildly racing around the keyboard, framed by an slow elegiac dance. While Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata offers amorphousness, there is also a flow of melody and harmonic color that emanates from vitality and boldness. Scriabin gave this motto to the work in a poem that was essentially his credo: “I call you to life, mysterious forces! Drowning in the obscure depths of the creative spirit, timid shadows of life, to you I bring audacity!” The contrast between these two related modalities was clearly delineated in Ohlsson’s interpretations. Schubert’s second-movement descent into the abyss was vivid; many pianists back away from this moment; among recordings that I know, only Rudolf Serkin goes further in unleashing chaos than Ohlsson, who retained control over the dynamic shapes in a way that felt well-planned rather than completely spontaneous. This permitted its integration with the elegiac dance whose quiet intensity left the strongest impression by the end of the movement.

A significant beauty of this performance was the way in which interconnections among the sonata’s various movements were brought out: in the beginning, there is a motto, a two note octave drop that becomes the germ of the melodic material of the first movement; this provides the haunting accompaniment to the slow dance of the second; it morphs into a three-chord octave drop to form the theme of the third movement; and finally returns at the end of the finale to round out the entire forty-five minute experience. The tempi were spacious, the long first-movement exposition was repeated, the scherzo was slower than usual, and the long rondo-form of the finale was taken at a relaxed pace; Ohlsson clearly enjoyed this example of Schubert’s “heavenly length” and wanted us to do so as well. With so much beautiful playing filling the time, there was nothing to complain about.

  1. Ohlsson’s performance of this sonata work did manage to suggest a few of its progressive features: dark voicings and a deliberately plodding rhythm near the start of the first movement strikingly anticipate “The Old Oxcart” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, while the fleeting figures that open the last movement foreshadowed the rippling melodies of The Moldau.
  2. A quick survey of recordings indicates that individual pianists take very individual approaches to this work, based on timings that range from less than nine minutes to more the thirteen.

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