Ohlsson and the Wroclaw Philharmonic serve up inspired Chopin

February 09, 2012
By David Fleshler

Garrick Ohlsson performed Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra Wednesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

From a region of southwestern Poland that was absorbed from Germany after World War II, comes the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which opens a 14-city tour of the United States this week with concerts in South Florida.

The orchestra, which played Wednesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, will perform Friday at the Arsht Center in Miami, and this is a concert worth catching for as fine a performance as you’re ever likely to hear of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Handling the solo part was the celebrated American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, whose ties to Poland and Chopin are strong. He made his name by winning the 1970 International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He spent a lot of time in that country, acquiring Polish friends and an appreciation for the composer’s unique stature there. And he has devoted considerable performance time to Chopin’s music, playing all-Chopin recitals and recording the composer’s complete works.

From the first notes, it was clear this would be an unusual performance of this popular concerto. The ensemble, led by artistic director Jacek Kaspszyk, adopted a stately, unhurried tempo and took a gentler, less percussive approach to the orchestral introduction than is typical. Ohlsson did not treat the work as an opportunity for thundering virtuosity, nor did he make it a salon piece writ large. He played in an elegant and lyrical manner, integrating his performance into that of the orchestra and focusing on the concerto’s singing melodies, with no hint in his playing that this is a fiendishly difficult work.

The highlight of the performance was Ohlsson’s account of the second movement, a long melody that he took unusually slowly, with silky smooth playing of the rapid ornamentations with which Chopin embroiders the theme. After the second movement’s fiery middle section, Ohlsson’s account of the return of the main theme was breathtaking — a bit quieter, holding back almost painfully from the beat, for an account that was full of eloquence and nostalgia. The last movement mazurka rollicked forward, with Chopin’s quick notes given life and shape in the pianist’s hands.

Although Wroclaw, also known as Breslau, had been German since the 18th century, the city is heavily Polish now, judging from the names in the orchestra’s roster printed in the concert program. The Wroclaw Philharmonic is not quite a first-tier ensemble, as was evident from uncoordinated string playing, weak violin tone in high passages and lack of refinement in the brass. Yet it is a solid regional orchestra that compensated for technical shortcomings with spirited playing and what appeared to be deep involvement in the music.

The concert opened with Mala suita by the 20th-century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawksi. A light four-movement work rooted in Polish folk melodies, the piece is reminiscent of the work of Bartók, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Particularly effective were the clarinet and flute solos in the Prokofiev-like melodies of the slow third movement.

The concert ended with the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 as arranged for orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg. The first movement was taken very quickly, so that Brahms’ opening sounded more frantic than ominous, and some of the later passagework seemed almost comically overdriven. In Schoenberg’s arrangement, this is a virtuoso piece, and aside from a couple of brass fumbles, the orchestra delivered, with articulate, pointed playing in winds and strings in the Gypsy-themed last movement.

Would the encore be some morsel of music from the orchestra’s native land? No, the Polish musicians served up Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture, throwing it off with richness and élan.

The Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Garrick Ohlsson perform 2 p.m. Thursday at the Kravis Center, in Szymanowski’s Concert Overture in E Major, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. (kravis.org, 800-572-8471). They will also perform 8 p.m. Friday at the Arsht Center in Miami, repeating Wednesday night’s program. (arshtcenter.org, 305-949-6722).

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