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."

When Ohlsson was a student, the playing of Chopin was dominated by two great living figures, Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. On the one hand was Rubinstein's "sane, healthy, structural, gorgeous, generous, un-neurotic Chopin," on the other "the nocturnal, feverish, irrational, technically exciting and electric approach of Horowitz." Ohlsson's idea was to reconcile the two. Later, having heard Rachmaninoff, Ignaz Friedman, Josef Hofmann, Josef Lhévinne, and Moriz Rosenthal play Chopin, he realized that there were more possibilities.

Ohlsson approaches Chopin with what has been called his "big, brilliant American" technique and with his own ideas. So far there are seven installments in his Chopin cycle for Arabesque, and they are full of surprises. Listening to him play Chopin's nocturnes, I was struck by the warmth of tone he gets from his Bösendorfer and by his detailed manner of shading the volume of his phrases. His pacing is broad and expansive; the pieces are kept afloat by his control over the intensity of each note and by his patient revelation of each piece's emotional life and structure. The results are unaffected, natural, big-toned but not inflated -- an exquisite blend of the intimate and the grand. Ohlsson can be emphatic, as in the Ballade in F (Arabesque Z6630), on which he brings out the drama and even the seeming disjunctions. He plays the ballade's peaceful beginning so innocently that one would never anticipate the shattering effects to come; the performance is almost brutal. Not so the waltzes (Arabesque Z6669), which swing delightfully and unaffectedly, demonstrating Ohlsson's charm, warm tone, and fluent technique.

TO the surprise of his peers, Ohlsson continued to study long after he had an international career. His intellectual interests along with occasional pianistic difficulties carried him to various masters. One was the eccentric Irma Wolpe, the widow of the composer Stefan Wolpe, who taught at the New England Conservatory. Ohlsson met her when, at the age of twenty-six, he was giving a master class on Chopin's A-flat Ballade. A woman in the audience asked a question that Ohlsson answered mechanically. Rising from her seat, she told him he was all wrong and pushed the student off the piano bench to show what she meant about the combination of pedaling and phrasing. Rather than being offended, Ohlsson was intrigued by her playing. "I heard a kind of pianism that I had previously encountered only off of seventy-eight records from people like Hofmann and Friedman," he told me.

Wolpe helped to remake Ohlsson's technique. She also introduced him to her ideas about the Classical style. As music developed in the later nineteenth century, the musical line became longer and more expansive. Romantic pianists tended to play Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn as if they were Brahms or even Chopin. Wolpe thought that the long-lined approach "tended to ignore the sophistication of the internal workings of these phrases," Ohlsson told me. "She was fond of taking out a book of eighteenth-century architecture. She'd say, `Look at how they used to finish corners and doors, with all these little curlicues -- very refined, but very busy. It never obscures the main purpose, but it's highly articulated.' She complained about one famous modern pianist's Beethoven, saying it was like Formica -- smooth, technological, twentieth-century. Beethoven wasn't smooth; Beethoven was highly articulated. She insisted on the speaking quality that had to do with articulation and the lengths of notes -- very like what the early-music types are talking about today."

Ohlsson has had only one musical hang-up in his life: Mozart, whom Artur Schnabel once described as too easy for amateurs and too difficult for professionals. Ohlsson was taught early that one needed a vast amount of cultural baggage to understand Mozart: a childhood teacher denounced his pupil and American musicians in general by saying, "You don't even know what a minuet is." Later Ohlsson felt that his grand, virtuoso technique was not "germane" to the Mozart style. He spent years studying Mozart with Wolpe, and had what he considers a breakthrough when he performed Mozart's Piano Concerto K.271 at the Mostly Mozart Festival. Now he performs about a dozen Mozart concertos, though he hasn't yet recorded a note of one.

Ohlsson has, however, started what looks like the beginnings of a Beethoven cycle, having recorded two discs. His Beethoven is hardly what one would expect from a Chopin expert: it sounds planned, even if sometimes explosive. His Haydn (Arabesque Z6625) is a revelation: vivacious and in the witty, intelligent spirit of the great Viennese composer. He is particularly proud of his Haydn disc, but it has received little attention. Ohlsson has a whole shelf of recordings, he says, that remain obscure, including some of his twentieth-century recordings: his world-premiere recording of the Charles Wuorinen Piano Concerto, his Stefan Wolpe chamber works. He is naturally pleased with the attention his Busoni recording (Telarc CD-80207) received and his Chopin is receiving; and he has big plans for the near future -- more Beethoven, more twentieth-century works. "There's lots of repertory left," he told me with glee. Among other things, there's Mozart.

Illustration by Kamil Vojnar

The Atlantic Monthly; November, 1996; Big, Brilliant American Sound; Volume 278, No. 5; pages 106-108.