Both composers whose music was performed in Garrick Ohlsson’s Sydney solo concert were motivated by other artists, namely painters, thus an originally visual experience became audial in the resulting compositions. The programme, which was both intelligent and inspired, consisted of Francisco Goya’s early paintings and etches turned into a piano suite by Enrique Granados, titled appropriately Goyescas, whereas in the second half, the audience was treated to Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. Whether the listeners should or should not be familiar with the original paintings and whether the concert performance ought to reflect the character and atmosphere of the extra-musical narrative, that are particularly interesting questions with this kind of programme music. My feeling was that the American pianist, a gentle giant of a man, did not think so. He seemed to detach the individual works from any type of descriptive images and presented the two compositions with their own distinct and evocative musical features. This choice is not necessarily good or bad, but it did impact on the performance.

The recital started with Orientale, one of the 12 Danzas Españolas, also by Granados, acting as a pleasant enough, brief warm-up piece, before the nearly one-hour long set of Goyescas. If the music of Granados is not as widely known as that of other Romantic composers, that may perhaps be due to its extremely strong attachment to Spanish folkloric traditions. The musical language of Goyescas is idiomatic in the extreme by offering sweeping melodies in which individual notes are frequently ornamented by grace notes, trills or mordents, a characteristic harmonic structure which sounds surprisingly transparent for its time, the richness of texture necessitating the music to often be written in three lines (or staves) as two would no longer suffice, and abundant instructions in the score referring to an unrestricted, rubato playing style. In fact, the first piece in the cycle starts with the composer’s directives in no less than three languages (Italian, French and Spanish) and within the first eight bars, the performer is asked to make the tempo faster (accelerando), slower (rallentando) and soon after, to play as he or she wishes (molto a piacere).

Ohlsson, in an elegant and easy-going manner, satisfied all these requirements. He was perfectly in command of the considerable technical difficulties of the work; his performance was correct, true to the score but did not radiate any obvious desire to stun the audience with overwhelming emotions. Tumultuous sentiments may hide in the writing of the composition or could be triggered in the artistic mind of the pianist. However, excessive outbursts or melodramatic gestures were not characteristic of this performance and as a result, Goyescas sounded enjoyable without becoming remarkable.

The paintings giving most movements their title in Pictures at an exhibition are the work of Viktor Hartmann, a friend of Mussorgsky. In a performance of this piece, the audience is invited to take an imaginary tour of eleven paintings in as many movements, which are often interspersed by a musical walk from one painting to the next, called Promenade. The music is brilliantly varied, from gloomy (in The Old Castle) to boisterous (Limoges Market); it sounds sardonic in the portrait – or is it a caricature? – of the two Jews, Samuel and Schmuyle, and bombastic in the embellished grandeur of The Great Gate of Kiev.

This composition may not be as recognisably nationalistic as that of Granados; nonetheless, Mussorgsky still found it important to mark the Promenade nel modo russico. Ohlsson’s performance was again well controlled, free of unnecessary physical movements and, apart from a few minor blemishes, he guided the tour with excellent command. For my taste though, the dramatic moments would have worked better with some exaggeration, the velocissiomo (extremely fast) ending of the Gnomus movement with slightly more aggression, and the meditative silences without any precalculated length. The emotions run havoc in this dazzling work from infantile exuberance to majestic pathos and I wished at times that Ohlsson would have allowed the theatrical excesses of this music to conquer more.

Out of the three encores, the first completed Goyescas with a later composed, unofficial seventh movement, called El Pelele. Then two short pieces by Chopin finished the concert on a high note, offering not only gentle elegance and nostalgic beauty but also proving Ohlsson’s emotional involvement with his art unequivocally.