Arts & Events

Garrick Ohlsson’s Brilliant “Emperor” Concerto of Beethoven

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday February 10, 2018 - 04:54:00 PM

On Thursday evening, February 8, Garrick Ohlsson returned to Davies Hall to perform in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73, with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. This concerto, so-called the “Emperor,” marks the culmination and conclusion of Beethoven’s “heroic” style that began with the Third Symphony, “Eroica.” Musically, Garrick Ohlsson and Herbert Blomstedt are well-matched. They have performed together many times over the decades. Still, when onstage together now they seem physical opposites. Ohlsson is a great bear of a man. Blomstedt, now age ninety, and looking a bit frail, though he is still full of energy, is dwarfed by Ohlsson. However, they make beautiful music together. Ohlsson’s rendition of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto is almost a benchmark for all pianists. Likewise, Blomstedt’s attention to orchestral details in this work, his sense of timing and dynamic variations, make Blomstedt’s “Emperor” Concerto almost a benchmark for all conductors. 

Both soloist and conductor were in splendid form on Thursday evening. The opening Allegro, the longest movement Beethoven ever wrote, was a thing of wonder. The orchestra opens with three sonorous chords, and the solo piano responds to each with flourishes of runs, trills, and scales. In this, the sheer dexterity of Garrick Ohlsson was spectacular. The orchestra then embarks on a lengthy, 100-bar exposition of two main themes. The first is in the violins and clarinets. The second is heard in the strings then repeated by the horns. Herbert Blomstedt brought out the lyrical sweep of these two themes. A development of epic proportions ensues. After a climax, Garrick Ohlsson embarked on Beethoven’s cadenza, and it is not the usual improvisation but rather a brilliant further development by Beethoven of this movement’s thematic material. When the orchestra resumes, Blomstedt emphasized the increased dissonance that brings so much excitement to this movement. But Blomstedt also emphasized the shifting dynamics, which moves back and forth from fortissimo brilliance to pianissimo sweetness.  

The second movement, marked Adagio un poco mosso, was in the hands of Blomstedt and Ohlsson a thing of beauty. The orchestra intones a sort of chorale, plaintive and somber, almost religious. Then the piano comments on it with a song played pianissimo. Beethoven then presents two variations on the chorale. The first is heard in the solo piano. The second issues from the orchestra. Two bars before the end of the movement, Beethoven telegraphs what will become the main theme of the third and final movement. Once this theme bursts forth in full fortissimo, we are off and running, without pause, in the finale. Here Beethoven gives us German dance music, with two main themes, both full of energy. However, Blomstedt makes certain, here too, that dynamic variations are emphasized, now forte, then pianissimo, and, finally, fortissimo.  

At the conclusion of this great concerto, the audience exploded with applause. Blomstedt and Ohlsson embraced and shared bows. Togteher, they acknowledged the orchestra. Then, after several returns to the stage for more bows, Garrick Ohlsson performed as an encore the beautiful second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata in C-minor, Op. 13.  

Alas, a prior commitment prevented me from staying for the second half of Thursday’s program, which consisted of Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor, Op. 34. This entire program is repeated Friday and Saturday evenings, February 9-10, at Davies Hall.