Big, Brilliant American Sound

Garrick Ohlsson comes back to Chopinand rethinks his career as a pianist.

hands on keyboard

IN a recent Chopin recital at Alice Tully Hall, in New York, the classical pianist Garrick Ohlsson concluded a series of encores with "The Minute Waltz." He played it sublimely, and at a speed that made one audience member remark that it should be called "The Forty-Five-Second Waltz." Then he cracked the climactic note. Ohlsson gave the offending key a surprised, rueful look, as if it were at fault, and cheerfully corrected himself.

As he demonstrated, Ohlsson has a grand technique but not the grand manner. An unpretentious man who stands six feet four and has the bulk to match, Ohlsson, who is forty-eight, clearly knows what that manner is, having observed Arthur Rubinstein in action. At a lecture-demonstration with the radio personality and author David Dubal, Ohlsson told of a crucial musical experience as a child. He was nine, he said, when his piano teacher took him to hear Rubinstein at Carnegie Hall. Rubinstein played Chopin's G Minor Ballade, and Ohlsson decided he wanted to become a pianist. He gave a lovely imitation of Rubinstein at the piano, looking seraphically skyward, rocking backward, his trunk and right leg held rigid and his arms flapping the air well above the keys.

I later spoke with Ohlsson at his Manhattan apartment, a comfortable duplex with a little garden in the back. (He has since moved to San Francisco.) On the first floor Ohlsson had hidden a Steinway upright underneath the stairs for when he wanted to "pound without breaking strings." On the second floor he kept both a Bösendorfer grand (Ohlsson records on sonorous Bösendorfers) and what seemed to be his pride and joy -- a Mason and Hamlin grand, seventy-five years old, which he had recently bought. On the Mason and Hamlin's music stand was the piano part of the Dvorák Piano Concerto, which Ohlsson was about to play in concert.

Naturally strong enough to have been called the Paul Bunyan of pianists, with huge hands and conveniently slender fingers, Ohlsson is clearly ambivalent about exercise -- he described the physical demands of a certain Chopin étude in B minor as "worse than the NordicTrack."

Ohlsson thinks of himself as "absolutely a nonspecialized kind of musician." He performs a dizzyingly wide repertoire, from Haydn to Stefan Wolpe, including the tart études of Debussy and big romantic works like the Busoni, Dvorák, and Stenhammar concertos. When I talked to him, he was about to record a disc of twentieth-century classics by Prokofiev, Bartók, Barber, and Webern. Until recently Ohlsson was performing world premieres about once a year, he told me.

His early fame came playing Chopin: in 1970 Ohlsson became the first American to win Warsaw's International Chopin Competition, beating out such future stars as Mitsuko Uchida and Emanuel Ax. He was expected to go on a grand tour playing two or three big works and a Chopin program. He decided otherwise, telling his agent, Harold Shaw, that he wanted to learn a wider repertoire and avoid being typecast. Ohlsson was lucky, he was told -- most managers would have dropped him when he made the seemingly irrational decision not to exploit his recent success. Perhaps Shaw should have predicted as much anyway: Ohlsson had begun his debut recital in New York with a twenty-minute atonal piece by Louis Weingarden, because Weingarden was a friend.

IN fact, Ohlsson hasn't had quite the steady career one would have expected. Early middle age is tough on virtuosos who are no longer adolescent wonders but hardly ready to be seen as aging masters. In recent years he has come into his own again; his recording of the Busoni concerto created a stir, and he is recording all Chopin's piano pieces for the Arabesque label, in a project that should be finished in two years.

Ohlsson describes Chopin as "equal parts magic and structure." He wants to prove that in terms of his formal qualities Chopin is "as taut and as perfect as Bach, Mozart, or Brahms," even if no composer is more likely to evoke what Ohlsson calls a "delicious stupor."

The problem for a performer of Chopin is to strike a balance between romance and rigor. When Ohlsson was a student, his teacher Rosina Lhévinne, then the most famous piano teacher in the world, and best known for her success with Van Cliburn, said to him, "My dear, mostly there aren't Chopin players these days. How did this happen to you?" She meant it as a compliment, but Ohlsson was clearly going against current taste; since then he has wrestled with the problems of illuminating the form of each piece without being "merely structural." In the sixties young musicians, reacting to the perceived romantic excesses of earlier generations of pianists, were expected to be faithful to the score, eschewing the incrustations of tradition in favor of an intellectually rigorous approach true to the period of each composer. "Everything had to be scrubbed clean as a whistle," Ohlsson recalls. It's a movement Ohlsson feels part of, yet he believes that with Chopin "you can't merely be reverent and observant" -- the music is too rich, the scores too spare in instructions. To demonstrate the point, at his lecture Ohlsson played the op. 55, no. 2 nocturne "stressfully," bringing out each "nook and cranny" of the composer's structural skill. The results seemed glaring and harsh, un-Chopinlike.

Later he asked me, "If you do try to show all the beauties Chopin writes into a score, what do you do when the right hand has a decrescendo, the left hand has a crescendo, there's a staccato note in the right hand, and there's a pedal marking and it says legato? How do you do all that?" Ohlsson calls Chopin "a laboratory for myself," a kind of self-administered Rorschach in which he can test how he is feeling about music, the piano, and himself. "I can open a Chopin nocturne I have recorded twice and have played a hundred times and think, I don't know how this sounds. Chopin writes so much into his music that you don't know what to do with it. He is so responsive to so many different approaches."

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