The Iron Curtain was still in place and the world was even more divided than it is now when Garrick Ohlsson first won the hearts of Prague audiences. It was at the 1974 Prague Spring festival, when he and Rudolf Serkin were scheduled to give two recitals each. When Serkin got sick and was forced to cancel, Ohlsson was asked to step in – which he did, playing four different programs over four nights, to great acclaim. Ever since, he’s been greeted with enthusiastic applause the minute he steps onstage in Prague.

Garrick Ohlsson
© Ivan Malý

In his latest appearance, with PKF – Prague Philharmonia, Ohlsson showed that he hasn’t lost a jot, either in his playing or the audience’s affections. He and conductor Emmanuel Villaume teamed up for an authoritative, robust rendition of Brahms’ weighty Second Piano Concerto that had even members of the orchestra applauding.

From the blazing cadenza that arises from the opening horn and woodwinds motifs to the thunderous finish with the orchestra, Ohlsson maintained a smooth style and clean sound, gliding through even the most complex passages with elegant fluency. His gift for getting deep inside a piece while retaining his own voice lifted the concerto out of its usual Romantic confines, giving it a fresh, contemporary burnish. The range of moods across four expansive movements was no less impressive – commanding in the solos, tender in a rippling evocation of the Andante, and surprisingly lyrical, even playful in the lead-up to the crashing conclusion of the finale. The underpinning throughout was superb, a fine balance between the emotional and cerebral.

Garrick Ohlsson and the PKF – Prague Philharmonia
© Ivan Malý

Working sans baton on the podium, Villaume pulled a compelling sound from the orchestra, bold and muscular, music with an impact. The dramatic tone that he struck in the opening movement gave the piece a narrative momentum, augmented by flashes of color and graceful melodies, the latter exquisitely crafted in the Andante. Considering the near-constant tumult in the other three movements, the sound was remarkably clear and crisp, an expert evocation of powerful dynamics with no loss of detail. That included the piano, which was never lost in the orchestral commotion.

The near-perfect fit between the piano and orchestra reflected both the piece, which was written as an integrated whole rather than an ensemble backing a soloist, and the approach of two veterans of the stage. Villaume and Ohlsson did not glance at each other very often, clearly of a single mind about the piano’s role, adding highlights and character but otherwise tightly woven into the orchestra, one element in a much larger mosaic. The music was masterful but it was even more of a treat to see two pros at work, creating something larger than the sum of its parts, almost magical in its synchronicity.

Emmanuel Villaume conducts the PKF – Prague Philharmonia
© Ivan Malý

A second half of Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor lacked that spark. The big sound was still very much in evidence, though without the crisp edges and depth of the Brahms. A bit dry and uptempo, the music flew by without making much of an emotional impact. Even some windmill conducting by Villaume in the finale never brought it up to the proper level of grandeur. Still, the symphony was not entirely a disappointment, saved by colorful, polished work in the brass and woodwinds.

And overall, it was a memorable evening. The Brahms was a revelation, and Ohlsson’s performance offered a vivid reminder of why Prague audiences loved him 49 years ago... and still do.