Garrick Ohlsson

Beethoven: Sonatas, Vol. 4

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This self-effacing group of Beethoven sonatas is hard to evaluate, for listener opinions on it are likely to fall across a wide spectrum. American pianist Garrick Ohlsson falls into a school of Beethoven interpretation perfected years ago by Wilhelm Kempff: while he is technically beyond perfect, with articulation and duration of every note carefully weighed, the dynamics never go beyond mezzo-forte, and the whole thing is laid back in the extreme. The care Ohlsson puts into his playing begins with the program: this group of three sonatas is a good one, tracing the light, post-Classical vein over several phases of Beethoven's career. His reading of the Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, "Pastoral," may seem prosaic in comparison with Dionysian versions in which the first movement is imbued with exultation, but both it and the "Funeral March" Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op. 26, are perfectly controlled, and you may find that you learn a lot about these pieces if the pianist gets out of the way of Beethoven's notes. Or you may find that the middle movements, especially, of each piece are too plain. Perhaps the most successful of the three works on the disc is the late Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90, in two movements, where Ohlsson's total technical ease merges with Beethoven's artful, proto-Mendelssohnian simplicity in an extremely graceful performance that becomes hypnotic if you let it sink in over a few hearings. Ohlsson, in fact, often improves with repeated listening, and that's a point in his favor; he refuses to try to grab your attention. The same is true of the engineering; you don't notice it at all, but you do notice that you're hearing every little decay Ohlsson intends. It's the Fox News approach to Beethoven: he reports, you decide.

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