The chamber music series Music at Kohl Mansion hosts many fine artists, but it scored a coup on Sunday with the long-awaited return of pianist Garrick Ohlsson.
Renowned since winning the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970 at the age of 22, Ohlsson is a big, tall man with a slightly ungainly appearance. When he sits at the piano, he looms over the instrument.
But set his fingers on the keys, and the most graceful and subtle sounds come out. That made the Great Hall at Kohl Mansion an ideal space to place his talent under a magnifying glass for close examination. This high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room, centerpiece of a century-old baronial house on the Mercy High School campus in Burlingame, is about the size and shape of a very wide corridor. Even filled with an audience on folding chairs, its sound is bright and intense. Nothing gets lost in the air between performer and listener.
Ohlsson is renowned for his Chopin. That composer’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, was the evening’s highlight. Ohlsson played it with exquisite delivery, as an instinctive cascade of beauty rather than an exercise in sonata form. Declamatory opening statements that might require more forceful playing in a larger hall were dialed down to increase expression. Low dramatic rumbles further enlivened the work. The Presto finale displayed an infectiously dancing rhythmic pulse.
Most affecting in the Chopin section were the lyrical themes. Ohlsson was able to play these slowly while still carrying the flow of melody across the piano notes, creating seductive beauty. He accomplished this also with the variation theme in Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, one of the most Chopinesque of Beethoven’s piano works. The return of the plain theme at the end of the long movement was heartbreaking.
Also particularly fine in the Beethoven section were the contrasting juxtapositions in the first movement between Vivace and Adagio. These too flowed lyrically.
What these works had relatively little of was opportunities for Ohlsson to display his distinct way with the softest of notes. Instead, we got them in profusion in some short pieces of Charles Griffes, the American counterpart to Claude Debussy, especially in “The Fountain of Agua Paola.” The acoustics of the Great Hall wouldn’t permit the notes to vanish in the air. Instead, they hung there, exuding tone color like perfume.
Soft notes also made an appearance in Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy. This enormous, back-breaking work felt bumptious in the presence of such delicacies by Griffes and Chopin. Nevertheless, its torrent of hot and cold running emotions had a place for the most softly ringing hush as well as rhythmic thunderings rather less reflective than Chopin’s heavier passages. “Wanderer” is a good name for this piece featuring a recurring rhythm taken from a Schubert song whose lyric describes a traveler so lost he can’t find his own country. The germs of a sonata hiding inside it were buried under Ohlsson’s rhapsodic approach.
Ohlsson favored the audience with an encore in the form of Chopin’s quiet, introspective Waltz in A minor, Op. 34 No. 2. One more treat introduced the concert: two student musicians, cellist Jeremy Tai and pianist Vivian Wang in a vigorous performance of a movement from Beethoven’s Sonata in A, Op. 69, an appropriate choice to lead the listeners into Ohlsson’s recital.