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Garrick Ohlsson
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson performs at Tanglewood in Lenox, in July 2006. (Stephen Rose for the Boston Globe)

Ohlsson's sure touch keeps Beethoven's pace

Divine inspiration is a charming notion, but most composers learn by imitation; the great ones transmute such influences into a unique voice. On Saturday night, pianist Garrick Ohlsson presented a marvelous all-Beethoven recital showing how that composer came to terms with two formidable musical personalities. The first was Haydn, his teacher; the second was his own.

In the "Pathétique" Sonata in C Minor (Op. 13), Beethoven first fully adopted the heroic, heaven-storming persona that would posthumously harden into legend. In Ohlsson's recital, sponsored by Bank of America Celebrity Series, the pianist emphasized this impetuous power by resisting rhythmic waywardness. Sudden, thunderous accents blistered under the inexorable discipline. Spinning out the slow movement's melody, Ohlsson used a velvet touch and a classical rubato: Rather than stretch the time, he judiciously let his hands slip ever so slightly out of phrase, creating a limpid atmosphere of compelling nobility.

In the thoroughly Haydnesque Sonata in F Major (Op. 10, No. 2), Ohlsson delivered high-spirited wit with a showman's flair and timing, slyly goosing the rests while underplaying the gags. The finale, a breakneck tune that tries to be a fugue but can't keep a straight face, was tossed off in the best sense.

The Sonata in B-flat Major (Op. 22) is in the same vein, but Beethoven confidently pushes the material into something more idiosyncratic and moving. Figures and sequences keep repeating one time too many; Ohlsson's breathtaking speed and enviable consistency of touch made them into deadpan comedy. In the slow movement, Beethoven stretches what seems to be a six-beat pulse into nine, weaving subtle longing into each phrase. Ohlsson was at his most romantic here, unabashedly lingering over gestures without losing the intensity of the line.

The Op. 81a Sonata ("Les Adieux" ) closed the program. Here the self-conscious heroism of the "Pathétique" has become an effortless grandeur, the dissonances and harmonic shifts previously used for punctuation are now doors that open up new, expansive emotional possibilities. The performance was in the grand manner, the rough edges fully integrated into a generous, organic conception.

Ohlsson, who played the complete Beethoven sonata cycle at Tanglewood last summer, further mined this ore for his two very appropriate encores. The opening movement of the Op. 79 Sonata, a rustic dance of atypical refinement, was dispatched with easygoing grace; the prestissimo finale of Op. 10, No. 1, was an expertly told joke.