Garrick Ohlsson and the Takács
More emotion and less excess?
I am no fan of the piano playing of Garrick Ohlsson. I admit that he has astounding technique, amazing stamina, and great taste in what he plays. And I acknowledge that he is admired and even adored by Ann Arbor audiences. But I find his playing fatally egotistic and terminally narcissistic. Why does Ohlsson, after every two-hour Chopin concert, feel it necessary to perform another half hour's worth of encores - because the audience wants to hear more or because he wants to play more? Why are Ohlsson's forte passages fortississimo, his pianos pianississimo, his prestos prestississimo, his andantes so largo, and his largos so bloody slow? Why does Ohlsson pet and pummel the piano, caressing the keys sensually when he's not stomping on the pedals? For all Ohlsson's technique and taste, I finally felt compelled to walk out of one of his Chopin recitals.
Despite all that, however, I fully intend to attend Ohlsson's concert at Rackham Auditorium on Sunday, October 20, when he appears with the Takács Quartet, those paragons of stylish string quartet playing who - we may hope - will be able to restrain Ohlsson's more exhibitionistic tendencies. Moreover, the Takács and Ohlsson will be performing what for all of them is a perfect piece: Ernst von Dohnányi's Piano Quintet no. 1. Dohnányi, like half of the Takács Quartet, was Hungarian, so the Takács should be at home with the quintet's Magyar rhythms. Like both the Takács and Ohlsson, Dohnányi's quintet is rich, ripe, and late-Romantic, a combination of Brahms with more emotion and Liszt with less excess. The quintet is also a virtuoso work, with an extraordinarily difficult piano part that treats the pianist less like an equal partner in chamber music and more like the soloist in a concerto. If there is a work in the chamber music repertoire to which Ohlsson seems best suited to do justice, it's the Dohnányi Quintet no. 1.
The other works on the program
are Beethoven's exuberant and exhilarating Quartet in A Major and Ravel's ethereal meditation the Elysium Quartet. I have no doubt that the Takács will play the Beethoven brilliantly, but I am less sanguine about their Ravel. They have the technique to play it, but I wonder whether they have the temperament. Reserved but rapturous, sublimated but sublime, Ravel's Elysium requires a poise and an elegance, a dispassionate surface masking a passionate heart, that I have not heard from the Takács Quartet in their recordings or performances. I fear they may perform it with a precision that misses the point.
[Originally published in October, 2002.]