I can’t say my career has gone badly at all, but it hasn’t been as smooth as it would have been if we had crafted it to the market. But I’m extremely happy about that. I kind of did it my way.

Specializing In Spreading His Wings13 Jan 2012

CLASSICAL music listeners, like anyone else, tend to categorize their heroes, if only for the sake of quickly identifying a player’s strengths or a composer’s style. Garrick Ohlsson has spent the 42 years since he won the gold medal at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw balancing the benefits of having a recognized specialty with his preference, a reputation for breadth.

Mr. Ohlsson, 63, a former New Yorker who now lives in San Francisco, has done remarkably well at having it both ways. With the imprimatur of the Chopin competition and the interpretive acuity that helped him win it, he has built an unassailable reputation as a Chopin pianist whose recordings of the composer’s complete works (on Hyperion) belong in every Chopin lover’s collection. Yet he has confounded those who would bind him to Chopin by exploring a huge repertory. Some listeners regard his recording of the mammoth Busoni Piano Concerto (on Telarc) and his Beethoven sonata cycle (on Bridge) as his signal achievements.

At the moment Mr. Ohlsson has Liszt on his mind, mainly because this season includes the bicentenary of Liszt’s birth, though he has been known to mine the Liszt catalog in nonanniversary years too. In the 1998-99 season he played a three-concert series at Lincoln Center juxtaposing Liszt with Beethoven, Bach and Schubert. In one installment he undertook the draining feat of pairing Liszt’s monumental B minor Sonata with Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. He revisits the sonata next Sunday as part of a Liszt recital at the 92nd Street Y; he will repeat the program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on April 15.

“I am a Liszt fan,” Mr. Ohlsson said in an interview in November, when he was in New York to play Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. “I am not an unabashed Liszt fan,” he quickly added. “I don’t enjoy every note he ever wrote. But I’ve always had a great love for him, and I got to Liszt way before I got to Chopin. By the time I was 12, Liszt was driving me nuts, and by the time I was 13, even more. Chopin was wonderful, but Liszt was real boys’ material: heroic, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, doing the impossible.”

Mr. Ohlsson’s program is an overview, a Liszt’s Best of sorts. He has clearly thought deeply about his selections. The sonata, by common consent Liszt’s greatest piano work, is the centerpiece, surrounded by works that touch Liszt’s most introspective and explosive sides.

“It’s funny about Liszt,” he said. “When I was growing up, there was a mythology about the sonata, as if it was this almost unplayable piece. But it is hardly Liszt’s most physically challenging piece. And I don’t think it’s a piece about virtuosity at all. It’s about music and drama. That big, roaring octave section toward the beginning is actually thematic and musical. It’s not just an occasion to show that you can run all over the piano in octaves. I would say its challenges are its epic quality, its characterization, its hell-to-heaven aspects and its extreme, hyper-Romantic declamation, without which it just sounds constrained.”

Mr. Ohlsson said that he had included an arrangement of Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542) because he wanted to demonstrate Liszt’s versatility and because “it’s fun to have Bach in there too, especially a rather wild chromatic piece.”

“Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este” is meant to show Liszt as a visionary: Mr. Ohlsson described it as “the first French Impressionist piece” and noted that its religious undercurrent is a distinctly Lisztian characteristic as well. The atmospheric “Feux Follets” represents the delicate, elegant side of Liszt’s virtuosity; and the heavier, more intense “Funérailles” is, for Mr. Ohlsson, “a kind of proto-Mahler piece,” with something of the sonata’s drama. He is offering the “Mephisto Waltz” No. 1 as a high-voltage finale.

The program points up a curious aspect of Mr. Ohlsson. He is an erudite conversationalist, and his discussions about music often include references to books, films, interviews with pianists he admires (Claudio Arrau and Sviatoslav Richter, principally), changing musicological views and his own experiences as a performer for nearly half a century. To hear him speak you would expect him to be drawn mainly to the intellectual end of the keyboard literature. But as a 6-foot-4 bear of a man with a large frame and big hands, he is particularly drawn to bravura playing, and indeed, it is the more visceral and emotional repertory — Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff — that seems to grab him most.

“It’s true, you’ve got me,” he said when this dichotomy was pointed out. “I was thinking last night how great it was for me to be playing the Rachmaninoff in New York with a conductor I like. There is so much to do in that work. I’m not saying that there’s not much to do when you play a Haydn sonata, but there is something incredibly gratifying about being able to match the range of what’s required in the Rachmaninoff Third or in Liszt.”

Still, Mr. Ohlsson said, he did not want that preference to define him. He said that he remembered being struck by a review of an Arrau concert in the 1970s in which Andrew Porter, then the music critic of The New Yorker, said that when you listened to Arrau, you could believe that whatever composer he was playing was the sole focus of his work.

“And Arrau himself said that the musicians he admired are like great actors who are virtually unrecognizable from one role to the next, because their craft is so great, and they immerse themselves so fully. Richter had that quality too. I like to aspire to that, and I think that because of my natural gift of studying, that I can be a very good Classicist too. And Classical works — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven — and modern works, to a lesser degree, are places I go eagerly and naturally.”

Adam Abeshouse, who has produced Mr. Ohlsson’s recordings for 20 years, said his flexibility makes most anything possible.

“I just did a recording of 20th- and 21st-century music with him,” Mr. Abeshouse said, “and the scores were phenomenally complicated: black with notation. And he just eats it up.” He added: “If you ask him why he made a particular interpretive choice, he’ll give you a scholarly, reasoned explanation. But if you sit back and listen purely emotionally, that works too. He’s also found a way to harness all that intellect, wrap it in emotion and use it to communicate.”

Mr. Ohlsson’s new-music disc, due from Bridge this year, is partly a matter of unfinished business. When he made his New York debut at the Metropolitan Museum, shortly before winning the Chopin Competition in 1970, he opened his program with Louis Weingarden’s “Triptych,” against the advice of his manager and teachers.

“I said, ‘Nonsense,’ and played this difficult 20-minute piece,” Mr. Ohlsson said. “Nobody knew who I was, and nobody wanted to hear it, and it laid a bomb in the auditorium.”

That did not stop him from returning to it over the years, or from performing works by Charles Wuorinen, Michael Hersch, Justin Dello Joio, Robert Helps and others. And he has made the Weingarden — which Donal Henahan of The New York Times described in his review of that debut recital as “skillfully but shallowly written for the piano in many recent idioms” — the main offering on the new-music disc, because he still believes in it.

“I drive myself crazy, but it’s fun,” Mr. Ohlsson said. “You know, music on the page doesn’t exist. It has to be performed. If some young pianist runs into the Weingarden in a library in 50 years, he’s not going to look at this difficult score and say, ‘Let me learn this and decide whether I want to play it.’ The standard response is ‘Let me listen to it.’ This is what little I can do in the way of legacy. Otherwise a lot of civilization just disappears.”

As it turned out, the Weingarden incident was only one time that the headstrong Mr. Ohlsson dismissed professional advice. His decision to enter the Chopin competition was carefully planned: having already won a major competition — the Busoni, in Bolzano, Italy, in 1966 — he knew that a more prestigious victory would give him a boost. The choices were the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow and the Chopin. When he won the Chopin, his manager, Harold Shaw, advised him to play nothing but Chopin for three seasons.

“He was projecting that kind of superstar trajectory where the public identifies me with a specific repertory,” Mr. Ohlsson said. “And I said: ‘Tut, tut, Mr. Shaw. No. I’m not going to be pigeonholed.’ I don’t know where I got the confidence to say that to a major manager who was planning my triumphs. But I knew in my soul that this was not the way I wanted to do it. And I remember him sitting back, thinking for a moment and saying: ‘O.K., I understand. It won’t be as easy, and it won’t be as fast.’

“I can’t say my career has gone badly at all, but it hasn’t been as smooth as it would have been if we had crafted it to the market. But I’m extremely happy about that. I kind of did it my way.”

By Allan Kozinn
The New York Times
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