Such lovely heartbreak at Tanglewood

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LENOX — Is there any music more heartbreaking than Schubert's Piano Sonata in A, D.959, his next to last composition?

Composed as Schubert was dying, it is overhung by an air of foreboding and loss, the more moving because the music is so beautiful. The second movement, for example, starts off with a typically Schubertian walking — more properly here, limping — melody. It is interrupted by a series of strange silences and crunching chords, and ends with the return of the opening melody, now decorated and darkened by rumbles and strange new harmonies.

Garrick Ohlsson's piano recital Tuesday night at Tanglewood did not, in other words, send you out into the night whistling a merry tune. The mood was only deepened by the inclusion of five pieces by Scriabin — another prince of darkness — between Schubert's late Sonata in A minor, D.784, and the penultimate D.959 (both of them posthumous).

But who's afraid of darkness when you can hear Schubert and Scriabin played like this? The program, the fourth in the "Schubert's Summer Journey" series, was — among other things — a great demonstration of how control is necessary to freedom in music (and maybe in politics), and vice versa.

But Scriabin, the mystic and forerunner of atonality, with Schubert, the melodist and romantic? Forty-four years and a lot of musical change separate Schubert's death (1828) and Scriabin's birth (1872).

In an interview and program note, Ohlsson described each composer as revolutionary in his way. He wrote: "More rigidly disciplined than Schubert, he [Scriabin] nevertheless sought in his music to express a wildness of feeling and emotion that the earlier composer would have recognized."                                                       

Point made. This was an evening of wild imaginings and weird juxtapositions.                                                  

In both Schubert sonatas, Ohlsson used the alternations between wistful melody, jarring harmonies, wild outbursts and an almost stumbling gait without resort to sentimentality. Sensuous appeal helped to make inward drama.                                                                                                                                                                

The effect was often like the jolt between dreaming and waking. Easygoing at the start, the first movement of D.959 evolved into a call from afar — a whisper of the unknown, full of regret at the end. After the terrifying andante, the last two movements, lighter in tone, offered a kind of false gaiety in consolation.                    

Four short pieces by Scriabin preceded his Sonata No. 5. A clue to his predilections came in his movements' titles. The Prelude, Op. 59, No. 2, was marked "savage, belligerent," and indeed it was. The three sonata movements were titled "allegro," "impetuoso" and "con stravaganza." Take the man at his word. The music sounded like Liszt gone mad.                                                                                                                        

These are gnarly works, made more so by Ohlsson's technical command and sheer power as he opened up the weird harmonies and jolting interruptions. Only the brave enter here. Ohlsson held the key to the gate.


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