As I settled into my seat in the Kaufman Theater at the 92nd Street Y, the man next to me turned to his wife to say: “This concert is going to be quite the journey.” Snickering to myself, I dismissed the man’s comment as trite. But by the end of the all-Liszt program, I felt bulldozed by Garrick Ohlsson’s performance.

Garrick Ohlsson, © Kacper Pempel
Garrick Ohlsson,
© Kacper Pempel

With Ohlsson standing at an imposing six feet four inches, it came as no surprise when he began Sunday’s concert with the heavy-handed bombast of Franz Liszt’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor. But when Ohlsson reached the four-voiced Fugue, his frenetic energy gave way to delicate, albeit complicated fingerings. Performed with utmost clarity, the performance was a true homage not just to Bach, but to Liszt’s own admiration for the late-Baroque composer.

Ohlsson’s ability to shift tempo and mood so quickly revealed a real fluency in Liszt’s work. Ripe with contradictions, Liszt’s music can often feel schizophrenic. In this single program, I felt calmed by pastoral impressions of the Italian countryside in Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este, only to feel fired up by Funérailles, a dramatic funeral procession, which Ohlsson played mere moments later. And we were then whipped around once more, this time by the whimsical Feux follets and the fantastical Mephisto Waltz no. 1. These last two pieces were absurdly fast, but Ohlsson never faltered. I sat transfixed as I watched Ohlsson’s fingers fly across the keyboard.

Ohlsson’s mastery really shone through in Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. A sonata more in name than in form, this piece develops the primary musical motifs throughout four standard movements, but without the obvious breaks between them. The effect is one sinuous movement propelled forward by backbreaking speeds and ferocious technique. A beautiful effect, this sonata’s most challenging aspect is that it simply does not stop. From the moment the soft opening notes rang out in the concert hall, Ohlsson was forced to move between heavy block chords and sweeping, romantic lines, quick trills and broad strokes. A piece dominated by syncopated rhythms, chromatic scales and quick runs up and down the keyboard, Ohlsson nevertheless made sure that the themes could still be heard amidst the chaos.

The most striking moment occurred in the middle of the piece. After a waterfall of sound in the upper register, tumultuous block chords quickly followed, building up to a slow crescendo. After several minutes of grueling tension, the music finally relaxed and the melodic theme broke free. But then, just as suddenly, the pace picked up again and the tension returned, not to be resolved until the piece finally concluded with the very same notes that began the sonata. It is a grueling challenge for any performer, but Ohlsson took command of Liszt’s sonata, delivering a perceptive and artful performance with seemingly little effort.

The man next to me believed Ohlsson’s performance would feel like a journey, and he could not have been more right. Unexpectedly, my Sunday afternoon became a tempestuous musical adventure.

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