Baltimore Symphony's Rachmaninoff program features brilliant pianist Garrick Ohlsson
Long before the hit 1996 movie “Shine” got a wider audience interested in it, this concerto was firmly established in the repertoire as one of last and greatest outpourings of Romanticism, not to mention one heck of a test for even the cockiest pianist’s technical prowess.
The ultimate challenge here is to unleash the often bittersweet lyricism of the score in such a convincing and involving way that listeners find themselves swept away, no matter how many times they’ve heard the piece — or how resistant they may normally be to heart-on-sleeve emotions in music.
Consider me freshly swept. What Ohlsson did ...
When Rachmaninoff subsequently called for power in that first movement, Ohlsson unleashed torrents of it — thunderous chords and slicing octaves that somehow never turned into a clanging assault. And when the principal theme returned for its final airing, the pianist shaded it in an even more introspective fashion, producing a haunting effect.
In the mercurial second movement, Ohlsson again balanced huge bursts of velocity with poetic, nuanced phrasing. The finale, which features Rachmaninoff’s signature device of gradually developing tension until a passionately soaring theme can reach its boiling point, inspired Ohlsson to yet another height.
His combination of fearless technique, tonal variety and expressive underlining was matched to a great degree by the BSO, with conductor Marin Alsop at the helm. In the end, the performance added up to something perhaps best described as aural sex.
The all-Rachmaninoff program opened with less familiar fare, “The Isle of the Dead,” an orchestra work composed the same year (1909) as the concerto. Inspired by a once-popular painting of that name by Arnold Bocklin, the piece is one of many that
Rachmaninoff infused with references to the ancient Latin funereal chant, “Dies Irae.” This is sober, darkly beautiful music that deserves to be better known. Alsop shaped it sensitively and drew some eloquent playing that is likely to get even more so in Sunday’s repeat performance.
The concert also includes Respighi’s rarely encountered orchestrations of five of Rachmaninoff’s “Etudes-tableaux” for solo piano. Never mind that Rachmaninoff should have done his own orchestrating. Respighi was a master colorist, and these pieces are luxuriant and atmospheric.
Placing the Etudes right after “Isle of the Dead” was not ideal — the first of those Etudes has much the same pacing, orchestral palette and “Dies Irae” thread. Alsop did not always dig deep into the music, and the orchestra did not sound entirely settled, especially in the “Marche funebre.”
Still, there was plenty to savor, including gorgeous vibrancy from the strings and some visceral playing by the brass.
The piano concerto will be discussed and performed at an “Off the Cuff” program at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Meyerhoff. The complete program will be performed there at 3 p.m. Sunday.