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Keyboard Thursday album review: Garrick Ohlsson convincingly presents merits of composer Charles Griffes

By John Terauds on May 9, 2013

POLAND-CHOPIN/

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson is one of the greats — as he reminded everyone present at Koerner Hall two weeks ago. So when he turns to something obscure, we need to see and hear what he’s up to.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

Ohlsson is one of a tiny group of pianists who today recognize the power and craft of the works left behind by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, an Elmira, NY-born talent who died at age 35 from the flu, in the spring of 1920.

Griffes1Like Charles Ives, Griffes was a musical adventurer. He had a late start in music, beginning piano lessons at age 15, but quickly made up for lost time. He went off to Berlin to study, thanks to a generous patron back home in Elmira, and, almost by accident, turned to composition.

Steeped in the slippery tonalities of Richard Strauss and the tone poetry of Wagner, Griffes started off writing in sort of an Impressionist style that quickly morphed into something that defies a quick description. Think of Franz Liszt’s late-life noodlings, but cast in a more adventurous harmonic and contrapuntal mould.

The big piece on Ohlsson’s survey is Griffes’s Piano Sonata, a nearly 15-minute-long, three-movement adventure filled with fascinating thematic developments as well as bold expressive contrasts.

Most of the disc is, however, given over to miniature tone poems that need very accomplished fingers to carry off.

Ohlsson does a brilliant job, playing each piece as if it were the most valuable masterpiece ever written. The American pianist’s engaging interpretations may be the best reason yet to give Griffes a new lease on life.

This album is a valuable addition to the recorded repertoire, reminding us that the early 20th century was a remarkably creative, if not revolutionary time, in art music — even on this side of the Atlantic.

griffescd(I learned in the CD booklet that one of Griffes’s concert champions was Canadian-born pianist Leslie Hodgson, who premiered one of the Tone Pictures in the small auditorium at Carnegie Hall in 1914.)

You can find out more about this Hyperion album here. I wrote more extensively about Griffes here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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