The envelope, please. The prize for the season's most ravishing encore goes to Garrick Ohlsson.
After the audience in Symphony Hall last night responded to the pianist's performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto with something that sounded like primal scream therapy, Ohlsson obliged with Chopin's Waltz in E-flat, Op. 18. He toyed with the rhythm in a manner both free and disciplined; hitherto hidden voices sang from within the textures. The waltz sparkled and swooned, and then it was primal scream time all over again.
There has always been a mystique surrounding Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto -- "Rocky III" to ambitious piano students. It places extraordinary demands on power, speed, stamina, and taste.
The mystique was amplified by the concerto's prominence in the movie "Shine." Remember John Gielgud, as the aged piano teacher, rolling his eyes as he said, "Those chords -- they could drive you mad."
Ohlsson has played the concerto for years -- it's one of 80 at his command -- but he has frequently been passed over in favor of the latest hotshot who can't play much of anything else; Ohlsson is on call for works that nobody else wants to learn, or is capable of learning, like the Busoni Concerto or the Copland Concerto or something new, like the recent concerto by Michael Hersch.
Last night his tone in the quieter passages was limpid, his phrasing shapely. In the scampering interlude of the slow movement he played with entrancing lightness. And when power and drama were called for, he delivered in full measure -- he's the only pianist this listener has ever heard who was never drowned by the orchestra.
He never stinted in the passionately emotional aspects of the music, but also brought out all of Rachmaninoff's classical counterpoint; he never lost detail in sweep. He also seemed to be having the time of his life playing this music -- and Robert Spano conducted like a kid in a candy store. The orchestra sounded sumptuous -- those strings, they could drive you mad -- and the musicians applauded as lustily as the audience.
The first half of Spano's program was contemporary. The conductor led off with Osvaldo Golijov's tribute to tango master Astor Piazzolla, "Last Round," a work he originally composed for chamber ensemble and later expanded for full string orchestra. It's in two sections, one high energy, one quieter, both dark, macho, and sexy. No one is going to improve on the composer's description of tango as hot passion transformed into "pure pattern." That's what he delivered, and so did Spano and the orchestra.
Neither of the new works by Oliver Knussen originally scheduled for this program was finished in time, so Spano turned to a work Knussen failed to complete in time for his scheduled BSO premiere in 1974, the Third Symphony. Knussen's works are always worth the wait. This one is an extraodinary match of corruscating surface and deep structure, of compression and expansion.
Spano led an intense, compelling performance of a work that moves into a long quiet chorale that becomes the bass line for a set of variations before it slips quietly out of the room.