Iron hand in velvet glove: Garrick Ohlsson brings discipline and delicacy to Chopin

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chopin: Garrick Ohlsson (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.4.2023. (CSa)

Garrick Ohlsson

Chopin – Nocturne in F, Op.15 No.1; Nocturne in B, Op.9 No.3; Barcarolle in F-sharp, Op.60; Fantasy in F minor, Op.49; Scherzo No.3 in C-sharp minor; Impromptu No.2 in F-sharp, Op. 36; Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58

In 1970, San Francisco-based Garrick Ohlsson became the only American to win the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He was just twenty-two years old. He has long been regarded as one of the world’s leading interpreters of the works of Fryderyk Chopin. Last week Ohlsson, three days after celebrating his 75th birthday, made a rare but welcome visit to London’s Wigmore Hall in an eagerly anticipated all-Chopin recital. Despite his special affinity with the composer, Ohlsson has declared himself to be his polar opposite. Chopin was an introvert by nature who hated public performances, whereas Ohlsson is a self-proclaimed extravert who relishes the concert platform. Chopin was slight in stature, 5 foot 6 inches in height and frail, but Ohlsson stands 6 foot 4 inches tall, is robust and vigorous. It has been said that Chopin made very little impact on the concert platform, while Ohlsson performs with formidable effect. A little stiffer in the legs perhaps since his last Wigmore recital in 2019, his hands (with a Liszt-like span of a 12th in the left and an 11th in the right) are astonishingly agile. They are still capable of producing a huge dynamic range, coupled with an almost poetic lightness of touch.

The programme started with two Nocturnes, the first in F major, Op.15, No.1 and the second in B major, Op.9, No.3. Their long richly ornamented melodies are punctuated by unexpected interruptions. In both, Ohlsson accentuated the chordal and melodic structures underpinning each piece, while moments of dark intensity were followed by passages of great delicacy.

Next came the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op.60. Its opening bars, like a gently rocking boat, swelled into a glorious melody which, despite its simplicity, in Ohlsson’s conception of the piece, became almost monumental in scale.

The Fantasy in F minor, Op.49, followed. Chopin confided sadly in a letter he wrote in 1841, ‘Today I finished the Fantasy – and the sky is beautiful. My heart sad – but that doesn’t matter at all. If it were otherwise, my existence would perhaps be of no use to anyone.’ From the soft, pervasive melancholy of the opening funeral march and the tumultuous, euphoric intensity of the middle section, to the tragic lament of the final bars, Ohlsson brilliantly captured the piece’s shifting colours and gave full expression to the composer’s constantly fluctuating moods.

Scherzo No.3 in C-sharp minor concluded the first half of the recital. It is startlingly dramatic work with dissonance at its heart. Ohlsson ‘s meticulous finger work and beautifully judged tempos overcame any technical difficulties and demonstrated his total command of sound and structure.

After the interval, Ohlsson gave shape to Impromptu No.2 in F-sharp, Op.36. The gently pastoral swagger of its opening bars soon gave way to a more agitated and ultimately radiant Berceuse.

The final work on the printed programme was the last of Chopin’s piano sonatas, No.3 in B minor. In four movements, it is widely regarded as one of the composer’s most demanding works. Ohlsson has observed in the past that Chopin played without structure becomes sickeningly sentimental, but Chopin played without magic becomes dull. Making light of the technical and musical difficulties, Ohlsson combining steely discipline and exquisite delicacy brought turbulence and intense drama to the stormy introduction of the Allegro maestoso, and dazzling ebullience to the spirited Scherzo. A sublime serenity characterised the Largo, while the Finale, marked Presto non tanto, was breathtakingly articulated in a blaze of virtuosity.

The appreciative audience was generously rewarded with two lollipops before they headed home. The first was Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op.64 No.2, intimately played and beautifully phrased, and the second, a tender, shimmering account of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. It was a simple note on which to end an outstanding recital, but as Chopin remarked: ‘Simplicity is the final achievement.’

Chris Sallon

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