Full-blooded Brahms and Dvořák, with an infusion of Spanish colors

By Truman C. Wang
Published 1/26/2016

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

HALFFTER: Tiento del primer tono y batalla imperial (West Coast premiere). BRAHMS: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 8 in G Major. Jesús López-Cobos, conductor. Garrick Ohlsson, piano. Los Angeles Philharmonic, January 22, 2016, Walt Disney Concert Hall

The Spanish contingent in this concert were very strong indeed, with a top-tier Spanish conductor, a crowd-pleasing new work by a Spaniard, as well as more Spanish-speaking patrons than usual in the audience.  The bright, colorful Spanish national characteristics seemed to have spilled over into all the music.  In the Symphony No. 8, Dvořák’s nature painting of Bohemia was seen through a rose-colored Spanish glass by conductor López-Cobos and given a crisp and energetic reading.  From the soft forest murmurs in the bass that open the symphony, punctured by joyful bird calls, to the idyllic and thunderous landscape in the pastoral Adagio, and the giddy Bohemian waltzes in the Allegretto grazioso, maestro López-Cobos unleashed some impressive sounds and dynamics from the L.A. Phil musicians.  The horns that sounded tentative in the Tchaikovsky last week were on splendid form tonight, and the gorgeous flute solo in the Adagio’s principal theme was to die for. 

Such beauty in the details was not lost in the vast symphonic canvass of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.  Pianist Garrick Ohlsson gave a powerfully heroic reading interspersed with startling moments of delicate introspection and high poetry in the Adagio, reminding this listener why the judges of the 1970 Chopin Piano Competition awarded him the Gold Metal – to this date the only American to be thus honored in Warsaw.  Maestro López-Cobos proved an equal partner with his dynamic podium manner and sensitivity to detail, earning him the moniker ‘the Spanish Solti’. 

I am compelled here to clarify one piece of misinformation that was printed in the concert program and also mentioned by the pre-concert talk speaker Brian Lauritzen, namely, that Brahms considered his D-minor Concerto “a symphony with piano obbligato”.  This could not be further from the truth, as it was a pejorative term coined by a critic after the work’s disastrous premiere in 1859, dismissing the concerto as "a symphony with piano obbligato, in which the solo part is as ungrateful as possible, and the orchestral part a series of lacerating chords".  Poor Brahms, the fiasco interrupted his Beethovenian aspirations – and his Second Piano Concerto – for the next twenty years.