The American pianist Garrick Ohlsson seldom disappoints. I first heard him in a 1989 performance of the Busoni concerto with Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra & Men’s Chorus (Telarc). Since then, he’s recorded for more labels than you can shake a stick at, including Hyperion. Of the latter, I’ve reviewed his Griffes (one of my top picks for 2013), Smetana (a Recording of the Month), Scriabin and Granados. It’s an interesting mix, although, as befits a Chopin prize-winner, the bulk of his discography is devoted to that composer.
Looking at those reviews, I see that while I was impressed by Ohlsson’s Granados, I felt his playing ‘long on technique but a little short on [Latin] temperament’. Would that be an issue with this Falla programme? There’s not much competition: the great Alicia de Larrocha has recorded some of the transcriptions (Decca, VAI), as has Daniel Ligorio (Naxos), although both focus more on the composer’s conceived-for-piano pieces. Anyone looking for the complete transcriptions will have to make do with Azumi Nishizawa (Prometheus); at the time of writing, her single CD was available on Amazon UK for around £33, which seems excessive.
Let’s start with the piano originals, the earliest of which is the Cuatro piezas españolas (Four Spanish Pieces). Begun in Madrid and completed in Paris, it blends Iberian sunshine with a cooler, salon-like ambience that I like very much indeed. David Hinitt’s recording, which is full and finely detailed, does full justice to Ohlsson’s easy, intuitive rhythms and his mastery of dynamic control. In fact, I’d say it’s just right for this engaging and colourful repertoire. Moreover, in the more animated Andaluza, there’s a sense of clarity and idiom that I didn’t always get from this pianist’s otherwise admirable Granados album. Happily, any doubts I harboured about this one were dispelled at a stroke.
The other piano originals here, the Fantasia Baetica and the Canto de los remeros del Volga, find the composer at his moat beguiling. The former, which takes its name from the ancient Roman name for Andalusia, was written for Arthur Rubinstein. But, as Roger Nichols points out in his liner-notes, the legendary pianist felt it was too long, and soon stopped playing it. There’s no doubting the work’s virtuosic intent, but Ohlsson achieves an ideal balance between showmanship and sheer loveliness that quashes all criticism of its length or quality As for The Song of the Volga Boatmen, it may be short, but it’s artfully turned; the interplay of gently tolling bass figures and a deck-tilting treble is simply gorgeous. A pearl, this.
Smaller, but just as perfectly formed, is the Homenaje 'Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy', a commission from the French journal La Revue musicale. This highly concentrated homage, which betrays its origins as a composition for guitar, is played here with apt introspection and a touching sense of dignity. Thus far, Ohlsson has certainly judged the mood and manner of this music very well, but would he be as adroit with the infectious rhythms of the light-hearted ballet, El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat)? Again, I need not have fretted, for the three dances are despatched with a fluency and character—a palpable joy—that had me reaching for the repeat button several times in quick succession.
In the past I’ve referred to Ohlsson as a ‘pianistic prestidigitator’, so it’s no surprise to find he’s at his spellbinding best in the five excerpts from Falla’s ‘gypsy revel’, El amor brujo (Love, the Magician). The opening Pantomime and the ensuing Song of the Will-o-the-wisp are as evocative—and as eerily elusive—as one could wish, the latter bright and beautifully sprung. As for the Dance of Terror, he handles those devilish trills with aplomb, the treble crisp and clear above a well-articulated bass. A delicate lilt informs Romance of the Fisherman and the complex flare and flicker of the Ritual Fire Dance is a wonder to behold. Once more, I was bowled over by Hyperion’s tactile, you-are-there recording.
My store of superlatives is all but exhausted, and I’ve yet to hear the Second Spanish Dance from the 1905 opera, La vida breve (Life is Short). It may be the less popular of the two from this work, but it brims with energy and imagination. Ohlsson ekes out all the deftness and detail of Falla’s score; in the process, he reminds us that the composer—a keyboard virtuoso himself—wrote for the instrument with great assurance and skill. Really, there’s not a dud note here, and, even if there were, Ohlsson’s charismatic, utterly disarming performances would soon persuade you otherwise. Roger Nichols’ typically informative booklet note completes this fine package.
This album is a must-buy for Falla fans and newbies alike. But, as with all exceptional recordings, it’s about a confluence of talents, musical and technical. Indeed, Hyperion’s Andrew Keener and David Hinitt have actually raised the bar with this one, no mean feat for a label that already has a well-deserved reputation for class-leading sonics. They’re aided—in no small part, I feel—by a venue whose ‘grateful acoustic’ also contributed to the success of Flux, the Ferio Saxophone Quartet’s debut album (Chandos). That was among my top picks for 2017; this one will surely be on my shortlist for 2018.
Distinguished pianism, a fine venue and a first-rate recording, in short, a perfect storm.