There's a reason why Ohlsson always sounds so great when he performs Chopin. As Ohlsson explained during a recent interview I did with him, he lives by one simple rule when it comes to deciding which music to perform. "You've got to love it to play it," he said."

Chopin with the Boston Symphony Orchestra09 Aug 2017

“I never hold back,” Ohlsson added. “I’m always totally involved.”

Chopin only wrote two piano concertos. Ironically, he wrote the second one before the first one. Chopin wrote the second concerto in 1829, the first in 1830. The first one was simply published first. From a musical standpoint, Chopin’s first concerto isn’t the most exciting composition, especially during the first movement.

I realize composers need to lay the groundwork for other movements at the beginning of a concerto or a symphony. But compared to many of Chopin’s magnificent Mazurkas, Nocturnes and Etudes, the first movement of the first concerto doesn’t contain any of the haunting, memorable melodies you often find in many of Chopin’s solo piano works.

This became immediately apparent Friday night when Ohlsson played an encore featuring Chopin’s Nocturne in F Sharp Major, Number 2. Ohlsson also played an encore Saturday night, Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, Number 27.

In both cases, the melodies immediately grab your attention and draw you in with their sparkling, nostalgic tone. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Ohlsson play Chopin’s solo piano works live several times and still get goose bumps thinking about those performances. Friday night’s encore reminded me why I became a big fan of Ohlsson years ago.

But I didn’t need to wait until the encore on Saturday to feel goose bumps.

Ohlsson’s entire performance Saturday was simply spellbinding. I have heard other performances and recordings of Chopin’s 2nd piano concerto but Ohlsson seemed to make the composition his own Saturday, to breathe new life into this well-known work.

Ohlsson has this magically ability to make Chopin’s notes seem to hang in the air, almost like the fight scenes in the movie “The Matrix.” Time seems to stand still when Ohlsson plays Chopin’s music. Often, the notes seem to float in the air like feathers in a breeze. This was especially apparent during the second movement of the second concerto on Saturday night.

The second concerto’s second movement lasts little more than eight minutes. But in that time, Chopin manages to deliver some of the magic he regularly reserved for his solo piano works. Like Chopin’s hypnotic Nocturnes, the second movement raises the emotional stakes to stratospheric heights, without veering into cheesy, Liberace, candelabra territory.

On Saturday night, Ohlsson performed this passage to perfection. That’s because Ohlsson’s often at his best when Chopin’s music slows down during the quieter moments. I noticed this as well Friday night during the second movement of Chopin’s 1st piano concerto, which is definitely more interesting musically than the first movement of the first concerto. Ohlsson knows how to hold onto a note and enhance the drama in each passage.

But that was even more apparent during Ohlsson’s performance of the second movement of the second concerto on Saturday night. In fact, any time Ohlsson touched the keyboard Saturday, it was as if a spotlight came on and the rest of the world disappeared. Even the birds at Tanglewood seemed to realize Saturday night was particularly special. A few times, I could hear a few birds responding to Ohlsson’s playing, as he was speaking their same language. Add to that a cool breeze drifting through The Shed and entire experience was truly magical.

Listening to Ohlsson both nights, I was struck by the effortless, light touch of his right hand, especially with the higher, softer notes. You could hear it right from the first movement in the first concerto on Friday night. How Ohlsson is able to make those notes linger in the air and make the music sound like he’s playing just for you and a few people instead of thousands defies logic.

But there’s also no ignoring the power of Ohlsson’s firm left hand, which often plays various chords on the lower half of the piano. In many ways, Ohlsson’s confident playing on that side of the piano makes all the magic in the upper half possible.

The third movements in both concertos feels a bit like a victory march. But on Saturday night, that march was even more majestic. But there’s more to Ohlsson than his impeccable interpretations of Chopin. He’s famous for playing many different composers. “I have wide ranging interests,” he said during his recent interview. “I love the stimulation of new music.”

Ken Ross – Mass Live

“Let’s not forget Garrick Ohlsson’s final installment of the two Chopin piano concertos, which preceded the theatrical antics. The American pianist can thunder out runs along with the best of them but, as sequel to Friday night’s performance of the first concerto, the Second emerged with the same utter naturalness — call it rightness — as he stretched and bent phrases to give them breadth.

Again, the slow movement enjoyed crystalline, almost unearthly beauty of sound and line: a true midsummer night’s dream. The finale virtually danced. As on Friday, Ohlsson played a Chopin nocturne as an encore: the C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2.”

Hillary Scott – Berkshire Eagle