wed 29/05/2024

Ohlsson, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a Rachmaninov special | reviews, news & interviews

Ohlsson, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a Rachmaninov special

Ohlsson, BBC Philharmonic, Storgårds, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - a Rachmaninov special

A consummate pianist in complete control of a concerto Everest

Sweetness and mastery: Garrick Ohlsson with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John StorgårdsBBC

Maybe he thought it was a relaxing way to celebrate his recent 75th birthday – maybe he just fancied a trip to Manchester to play with the BBC Philharmonic – either way there was something very special to hear in Garrick Ohlsson’s Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto on Saturday.

It's often considered one of the greatest challenges for any virtuoso pianist, not least because it’s a 40-minute score in which the soloist is hardly ever silent. There are constant torrents, cascades and armfuls of notes, so that it’s simply a marathon before any question of interpretation or approach arises. But Ohlsson performed it with consummate skill, completely in control of all its demands and creating with it something of great musical beauty.

John Storgårds was back on the rostrum in his role of chief conductor (an appointment which took effect only last November after his many years as principal and chief guest conductor), and the second part of the winter season, now under his management, has a string of big works by Rachmaninov running through it, to celebrate the composer’s 150th birthday year. He and Ohlsson make a formidable partnership.

The factor that first struck me was the way the lyrical solo themes came across in the first movement, with a disarming kind of sweetness that is as much characteristic of Ohlsson’s playing as his technical mastery. That quality of purity, and some glorious surges of tone from both piano and orchestra, were richly rewarding in the central Intermezzo, too, and skilfully prepared the ground for an electric moment of transition as the finale began. Ohlsson and Storgårds took its alla breve tempo at a hurtling pace, and what could have been just a thrilling ride still had room for gentleness. It’s lovely to hear a soloist of such spectacular ability who is willing to be part of the background at times and to play Rachmaninov as if, at times, he were Chopin.

John Storgårds conducting the BBC Philharmonic cr BBCThe final pages of the concerto had quite extraordinary strength and impetus, utterly musical to the last, and the Philharmonic brought a glow of sunshine to their contribution. As if that were not enough for a septuagenarian on one night, Ohlsson finished the evening with some actual Chopin (the dreamy E flat Nocturne op.9 no.2), played with the kind of artistry that hides exceptional art.

Anyone who wasn’t there in the hall should make a point of listening to the Radio 3 broadcast (see below), as it will be an experience to savour.

This was a concert that showed its protagonists’ remarkable strengths, for the authority of Storgårds (pictured above) with his own Finnish repertoire is undeniable. The first part of the programme was the complete Lemminkäinen Suite by Sibelius: his Symphony no. 0, as it has sometimes been described, made up of four symphonic poems on the (rather gruesome, it must be admitted) tale of a mythical hero. Whether the story – of a guy who abducts his girl, tries to kill a beautiful swan, gets chopped to bits when he tries to enter the Underworld and is then re-assembled by his old mum for a triumphant return – is to your liking or not, the music is magnificent, even if oddly proportioned for a symphony. It's a tale of mystery and imagination, a quality that was immediately present in the playing of the strings, led by Yuri Torchinsky, at the outset, with hard-hitting points of climax and enviable precision in woodwind and strings throughout its undulating rhythms.

The second piece of the suite is the often-extracted "Swan of Tuonela", in which solo playing from Gillian Callow (cor anglais) and Peter Dixon (solo cello) were rightly to be celebrated at the close of the performance, and where Storgårds’ care for details was equally the reason for the music’s beauty. "Lemminkäinen in Tuonela", the third episode, is the most problematic for any interpreter, and the tempo was, sensibly, pretty lively for a molto lento, with high-vis contrasts in the dynamics of its crescendos and diminuendos and a full-on climax. Then came the last, "Lemminkäinen’s Return", full of pent-up energy now released, and taut, exciting and energetic. 

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