Chopin master is older, better Pianist: Garrick Ohlsson has been identified with the composer since 1970, when he became the only American to win first prize in Warsaw's prestigious Chopin Competition.

February 09, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The piano recital is reputedly near extinction, but Baltimore seems to be late in getting the news.

Today Garrick Ohlsson adds to an impressive list of scheduled performances that includes last weekend's packed-to-the-rafters appearance by Horacio Gutierrez and the prestigious lineup of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, which began with a recital by Leon Fleisher and will end in April with one by Murray Perahia.

Ohlsson -- a physically imposing 6-foot-4 -- has been an important presence on the world's concert stages since 1970 when he became the only American to win first prize in Warsaw's Chopin Competition, beating out a strong field that included the likes of Mitsuko Uchida and Emanuel Ax.

Since Ohlsson is a serious, thoughtful artist, it comes as something of a surprise that the first half of his recital tonight consists of the seemingly unlikely combination of Beethoven's backward-looking Sonata No. 16 in G major (Opus 31, No. 1) and Prokofiev's gargantuan Sonata No. 8.

"I could say I'm programming them because they're both fine pieces -- and that would certainly be the truth," the 48-year-old pianist says, with a good-natured laugh, in a conversation from his home in San Francisco. "But the details of the situation are rather different."

Those details, Ohlsson explains, include his preparation to record the Prokofiev sonata for the Arabesque label this past Christmas -- only to have Arabesque decide at the last minute to substitute Chopin etudes instead. The seldom-played Beethoven sonata contains some interesting Schubertian prophecies. Ohlsson learned it recently for a New York recital, which will honor the 200th birthday of Schubert, in which the Beethoven will serve as prelude to Schubert's final two sonatas.

But as Ohlsson continues to talk, it becomes apparent that his Beethoven-Prokofiev pairing was motivated by more than convenience.

"The Beethoven sonata, which is one of his wittiest pieces, is also uncharacteristically relaxed -- for Beethoven, at least -- and about as close as he gets to Schubert," the pianist says. "The Prokofiev, which is one of this century's greatest pieces, was once described by Sviatoslav Richter as being 'like a tree hanging with ripe fruit.' It's dreamy and lyrical and full of Schubertian themes. And the brilliant final movement makes a fine conclusion for the [program's] first half."

Musical identification

No questions whatever attach to Ohlsson's choice of Chopin's 24 Preludes for the second half. The pianist has been identified with the music of Chopin ever since his victory in Warsaw 27 years ago. In the 1970s, he recorded most of the composer's music for EMI and in the last few years he has crisscrossed the United States for six-concert cycles devoted to Chopin's complete solo music, while also making new recordings of the composer's total oeuvre for Arabesque.

"I'm older and I hope I'm better," Ohlsson says when asked how he thinks his recent Chopin recordings compare with those of 20 years ago. "Life's experience makes a great deal of difference in interpreting really great works of art, which -- I'm more convinced than ever -- Chopin's music is."

Ohlsson's Chopin has always been distinguished by a grandeur of conception, but his recent recordings are better than his old ones. His new version of the Polonaise in A-flat ("Heroic") is more splendidly resonant and now possesses a bardic sweep that makes it worthy to approach such classic accounts as those by Josef Lhevinne and Vladimir Horowitz. And his recent interpretation of Chopin's B minor Sonata, while retaining the free-wheeling energy of the one he recorded in Warsaw in 1970, shows a new awareness of details. In the sonata's contrapuntal first movement, for example, Ohlsson now demonstrates Chopin's debt to the quasi-fugal developments of the last Beethoven sonatas.

Doing it his way

One thing that hasn't changed in Ohlsson's Chopin, however, is that he still ignores the composer's repeat signs -- which call for the pianist to go back to the beginning of a passage -- in the opening movements of the B-flat minor and B minor sonatas. Once pianists felt free to ignore such signs; now they almost invariably feel obligated to observe them. But Ohlsson has never been a slave to fashion.

"Taking the composer's repeat is something many interpreters now do without thinking about it," he says. "In the B minor Sonata, I feel it doesn't enhance the movement. There's more of a case for doing it in the B-flat minor -- it certainly gives the music additional weight -- but I'm still not entirely convinced.

"We're living in a very literal-minded age," Ohlsson adds. "But I'm not one of those people who says that using gut instead of steel in stringed instruments and tuning A down from 440 to 420 [which it was in the late 18th century] will give us Mozart's music the way Mozart heard it himself."

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