Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has been a regular guest soloist with The Cleveland Orchestra for over forty years, often in the great Romantic piano concertos. His seemingly unlimited technical skills and grasp of the Romantic style make him a natural for Ferruccio Busoni’s monumental Piano Concerto in C major, Op.39, first performed in 1904, in five movements totaling 70 minutes. Indeed, Ohlsson and TCO recorded the work in 1989 – the last time it was heard in Cleveland – so this weekend’s performances with guest conductor Alan Gilbert were highly anticipated. The performance was riveting, but simultaneously exhausting to listen to; one can only imagine the stamina required of soloist, conductor and orchestra to bring it off.

Garrick Ohlsson © Dario Acosta
Garrick Ohlsson
© Dario Acosta

Busoni’s concerto is of the “more-is-more” type, in which the composer throws in everything in his imagination. The orchestra is a full-sized symphony, but not as large as, say, some of the Mahler symphonies. Besides the soloist, who plays almost nonstop throughout, there is a male chorus in the fifth movement finale who sing a quasi-mystical hymn in German from Aladdin by Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger (1779-1850). The musical style is maximally eclectic, from purely diatonic passages to slithering chromaticism, across a huge range of dynamics. The fourth movement could be a hybrid between a demonic tarantella and the soundtrack of a chase scene in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with frequent alternations between the triple meter of the Italian dance of death, and duple meter of a rampaging chase.

Along the way there are many opportunities for the orchestra’s principals to be highlighted in solos. The second movement solo by the clarinet in its low register was particularly striking, especially upon its repeat, doubled by solo trumpet. Alan Gilbert and his musicians kept the long third, slow movement inexorably moving toward its massive climax, with brass fanfares, the slam of the gong, and rapturously chromatic wind melodies. The diminuendo from the climactic moments was equally arresting. The men’s chorus from The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus was well prepared, full and mellow in tone, with strikingly good German diction.

The solo piano part in Busoni’s Piano Concerto must be a labor of love for anyone willing to tackle it. It is in many respects a thankless job, with endless streams of virtuosic scales and arpeggios, often at full volume yet covered by the orchestral texture. The soloist occasionally has some thematic material, but more often the piano part is filigree. Garrick Ohlsson was almost miraculous in his technical and musical achievement, all the while making it seem easy. There was no pianistic flailing about; he sat squarely at the piano and grasped those huge chords with finesse and full sound. At the end of the concerto Ohlsson and Gilbert received an appropriately rapturous ovation.

Any other musical work sharing the program with the Busoni Piano Concerto is going to seem puny, but TCO and Alan Gilbert opened the program with a sparkling, gracious reading of Haydn's Symphony no. 100 in G major,“Military”. There is good reason why this work has been a hit ever since its premiere in London in 1794; it has well-proportioned movements, melodic abundance with surprises along the way, and percussion in the style of a military band lending a charming exoticism. Gilbert and TCO were completely in tune with the style, with the possible exception of some phrasing in the second movement that seemed almost “too artful” and not completely natural. The ensemble’s precision in the tricky entrances of the final movement erased any earlier quibbles. Haydn’s subtle masterpiece was a fine opening to the garish brilliance of Busoni’s concerto.

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