Silent Film Music and other Sounding Off

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

An Interview with Pianist Garrick Ohlsson

This year the renowned pianist Garrick Ohlsson is presenting a series of programs around the country to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Chopin. In 1970 Ohlsson became the only American ever to win the prestigious International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and in the intervening years has also won a worldwide audience for his superb interpretations of a formidable list of concerti, the complete sonatas of Beethoven, and a wealth of chamber music with leading artists.

I first heard Ohlsson over forty years ago when at the age of 17 he played the Liszt Concerto No. 1, winning a young artists' competition in Westchester County NY, and have followed his career ever since, from the tryouts for his New York debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the stunning victory in Warsaw and then on to join the top echelon of today's musicians.

In a telephone interview just prior to his sold-out Chopin recitals at Tanglewood in August 2010, Ohlsson spoke about a number of facets of Chopin's music that have made it so enduring and significant to concertgoers and scholars alike.

GO: What I attempt to do when I make a Chopin program is to try to show his amazing variety. He suffers, like all great composers, from a sort of stereotypical response. When we think of Beethoven we think of him shaking his fist at the heavens and being triumphant—from darkness to light—over physical suffering. With Chopin you tend to think of how exquisitely beautiful his music is, you know, people's eyes roll back in their heads and they clasp their hearts, all of which is absolutely appropriate to his glorious music. But there's always much more to these great masters than we tend to think of, unless we know them well. So I try to show as much range as possible, and variations in the style.

For example, this first program is constructed fairly cannily, if I may compliment myself, because one of the basic canards was that Chopin wrote in small forms, which is true, but actually, in his Scherzos and Ballades— if you accept them as large forms as I do—the Fantasy, the Barcarolle, a few other pieces; many of his actual individual movements are longer than Beethoven sonata movements, and absolutely masterfully handled, so I wanted to inject a couple of those. So the first program begins conversationally with the Impromptu in F sharp, which is a work of ultimate genius, but it's hard to describe why.

And then it gets more conversational but more intense with the A flat Ballade—we have a larger work in there already. And then the Fantasy in F minor is a 12-minute segment which is actually perhaps his most publicly rhetorical piece. I mean here he's almost putting on a Liszt costume and orating to the multitudes. The Nocturnes—why, I don't know, I just decided to... once again, variations. One of the great things about Chopin is weaving that sense of a Persian carpet, of different moods and textures, and I felt that one of those was the C sharp minor Scherzo, it's highly dramatic and a large piece.

The 24 Preludes, of course, do not have to be played together, Chopin never said so, he was not very compulsive about these things—

DS: Any more than the Well-Tempered Clavier.

GO: Exactly. But it's become kind of à la mode since World War II pretty much, and it turns out that the 24 Preludes in all the major and minor keys form an incredible kind of cycle in a way, because although Chopin never said—you know they function in pairs, where the major and minor seem to answer each other, and sometimes they seem to answer each other in larger spheres. I won't carry this cyclical idea too far, because Chopin didn't state it, but it is an incredible range, and these 24 small pieces turn into 40 minutes of a very large vision of who he is as a creator. I mean if some catastrophe were to befall our civilization and all of Chopin were destroyed except the Preludes, we'd still have virtually all of him. It shows everything, from the most exquisite melodic fragment to the most aphoristic to the most demonic intensity, to the greatest power—

DS: The D minor, the B flat minor—

GO: Right, plus it's really pretty music. Because you know we tend to think of him as the greatest pastry chef among composers, and he probably is that. But that surface gorgeousness sometimes hides the fact that he's a great structural master, an absolute contrapuntal master. Charles Rosen wrote a really clever thing in a recent piece in the New York Review of Books: he wrote that Gluck was the German master who wrote Italian music in Paris, and Chopin was the Polish composer living in Paris who was the absoulute master of German and Italian forms, and managed to achieve a unique synthesis. In other words he wrote melodies that surpassed the bel canto masters, but he supported them with a Bach- and Mozartian contrapuntal mastery that no Italian opera composer of the time dreamt of.

He constantly mixes his metaphors, for example in the Mazurkas he may write a very rustic outer section with an Italian middle section. Or sometimes in the later Mazurkas he starts writing fugal practices which he never does anywhere else. Because if he called something a Mazurka it doesn't mean he was writing a country dance; he was much less simple-minded than that.

The second program: it's harder to string any logic together out of this one, let me tell you. One of the several forms Chopin really went crazy over was the Nocturnes, which began with John Field, who used an extended Alberti bass with an Italian singing melody above, but all you have to do is compare any Field Nocturne to the very first one of Chopin to show what a truly almost drug-induced trance can be like. That first Nocturne starts—he was probably 20 when he wrote it. It weaves its magic incomparably, it puts you in a very different world in a very short space. What a banal thing to say, but there it is. The Scherzo [No. 4 in E] and the [G minor] Ballade are among his greatest creations. The Ballade in G Minor is one that's particularly meaningful to me, because I heard Rubinstein play it when I was nine, in an all-Chopin recital at Carnegie, and I remember getting goose pimples with that first theme, and thinking that that was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard in my life, and then of course the second theme happened and I didn't know what to do with myself!

DS: When did you play that for the first time?

GO: Oh, that? Long time ago, probably when I was sixteen or something, a lifelong companion. If we had time for a musicological dissertation, a formal analysis of that piece would really wreck the brains of most people in the 19th or 20th centuries. I mean, how does he get from—OK, he gets from g minor to Eb. OK, how perfectly logically 40 seconds later does the the theme in Eb have a Wagnerian effulgence in A major, and how do we get here and how do we get back to Eb? There's so much music that happens instead that we're no longer astonished by it. When you just really look at what the composer has done, when any great composer writes music, it's pretty amazing.

The Variations, Op. 12, that's just a rarity, I wanted to throw in something delightful and not particularly important, but very, very brilliant. It's based on this theme by Halévy. That is a cream puff, I must say, but it also has a beautiful little nocturne in it, and it's just incredible ingeniousness. And of course the Sonata in B minor is one of the greatest of all pieces. I mean if you ever had to have someone give testimony to Chopin's gifts as a melodic writer, look at the second subject of the first movement. It's a 50-bar phrase that never repeats itself, except for one phrase internally. This gift of writing endless melody—Chopin had this to a degree matched only probably by, who? Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Dvorak occasionally, Tchaikovsky occasionally—that ability to soar on a purely melodic inspiration, and that's pretty good. I think the third movement of that is one of his most profound nocturnes.

DS: Are you doing these programs anywhere else other than Tanglewood?

GO: This first program I've been playing in many places since January. I'm doing four at Lincoln Center. I did two in February and March, and I'm doing two in November and December, and [Tanglewood] program 2 is sort of a combo of Lincoln Center programs 2 and 3.

Hear excerpts from Ohlsson's performances at the 1970 Chopin Competition at:

Upcoming performance dates:

Thurs. Sept 30, Troy Music Hall, Troy NY All-Chopin program
Thurs. Oct. 14, Carnegie Hall Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 with Orpheus
Fri. Nov. 5, Sat. Nov. 6, Sun. Nov. 7, Copley Symphony Hall, San Diego, All-Chopin programs
Wed. Nov. 10, Wed. Dec. 8, Alice Tully Hall, NY

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