Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International
February 2015

The last Garrick Ohlsson release to grace my audio system was a Griffes collection that went on to become one of my Recordings of the Year for 2013. Ever since I first heard Ohlsson play the Busoni concerto on a Telarc CD many years ago I’ve wanted to hear more of him. Now that he’s contracted to Hyperion, a label that really knows how to record a piano, I sense we’re in for a slew of very desirable albums from this partnership. Admittedly I had a few reservations about their Goyescas, but really they were very minor. Indeed, Ohlsson is always commanding, and his ability to mine a score for its smallest detail or rhythmic inflexion is remarkable.

I daresay this centenary year will produce a glut of Scriabin piano recordings—the sonatas are particularly popular—but single-disc traversals of the Poèmes are still a rarity. You will find many a collection peppered with these moreish miniatures, but the only other fairly comprehensive recording I can find for comparative purposes is Pascal Amoyel’s for La Dolce Volta. Ohlsson’s collection is billed as complete, although he does omit the occasional ‘movement’ from a multi-part piece. However, if you’re after all of Scriabin’s music for solo piano then Maria Lettberg’s Capriccio box is self-recommending (review).

First impressions are entirely positive. For a start I prefer Ohlsson’s chronological presentation to Amoyel’s somewhat jumbled one. The gentle musings of Op 32 No 1 are a very good indication of what’s to come. Articulation is clean, phrasing is natural and Ohlsson shades dynamics most beautifully. This is the kind of intimate music-making that makes one sit up and take notice. The rich and revealing piano sound is particularly welcome in the turbulent—but always poised—Allegro that completes this deft little diptych.

Amoyel’s is a bigger, closer sound and I find him somewhat ‘swoopy’ after Ohlsson’s more restrained and proportionate delivery. Amoyel’s Op 32 Allegro is certainly thrilling, but it isn’t terribly illuminating. It’s almost as if the Frenchman is trying too hard; he has to hammer at the door, whereas the American just applies the lightest of pressure and, voilà, the latch springs free. That’s a perfect summation of Ohlsson’s way with this pared down but highly expressive repertoire. True, there are times when Amoyel points up a particular melody or calls attention to an ambiguous harmony, but for sheer consistency of insight and imagination Ohlsson is to be preferred.

That’s the nub of it; Amoyel’s Poèmes are apt to merge into each other in a way that might be pleasing if you’re listening while ironing or doing the dishes; Ohlsson doesn’t settle for anything less than your undivided attention. The Op 36 Poème satanique is a case in point; those scampering figures and in-the-margin doodles make for the strongest of contrasts. All the while Ohlsson makes the music flow so well; more important, the stirring climax to this bit of diablerie is perfectly scaled.

Now mischievous, now meditative Op 45, the Op 46 Scherzo and the Quasi valse form an unspooling ribbon of delight; and for a striking example of Ohlsson’s rhythmic agility just sample the Op 51 Fragilité. That he does all this with no sign of added labour or artifice is impressive; but then that’s what all good conjurers do—they make it look so easy. The late works, commencing with the Deux morceaux, Op 59 (1910) and the Poème-nocturne of 1911, have a marked economy of utterance that sacrifices nothing of Scriabin’s melodic/harmonic gifts. Even in its gnarlier twists the Op 61 has an alluring shape and character that the imposing but somewhat opaque Amoyel can’t match.

Vers la flamme, penned a year before the composer’s death, has a Lisztian density and weight that seldom fails to make its mark on the listener; and so it is here. Ohlsson brings out the pent-up heat and venting release while retaining a marvellous sense of the music’s dramatic arch. Those flickering figures in the right hand are simply hair-raising, the firm, rich bass thrilling. Amoyel stops here but Ohlsson presses on with the aphoristic little dances of Op 73. The almost butterfly-like displays of colour and gentle motion in Guirlandes are simply captivating, and Ohlsson burrows deep into the dark heart of Flammes sombres.

There’s very little to add at this point, other than to reiterate this is top-notch pianism made even more desirable by an exemplary recording. Simon Nicholls’ detailed, authoritative liner-notes confirm that Hyperion’s production values are as high as ever.

Ohlsson, the pianistic prestidigitator, pulls it off again; a fine start to this centenary year.