I could go on and on about how dazzling and divine these works are, but I think the roaring standing ovation at the end said it all.

Tanglewood review: Garrick Ohlsson delivers another stellar piano concert26 Jul 2013

LENOX – Soft as a whisper, loud as a scream, subtle as a passing breeze – the piano possesses the ability to do all these dazzling things and so much more.

Pianos are like people. They can sing, cry, delight, seduce.

But we rarely get to hear a piano show off everything it can do. That’s because few of us know how to bring out the best in this magical instrument.

Certain pianists know how to make a piano do some of these things. A few rare ones know how to make a piano do a little bit more. Then there are the people whose fingers don’t quite seem human, which seem to dance across the keys like Fred and Ginger. And worst – or best – of all, they make it look as natural and easy as Ted Williams swinging for the fences. These are the pianists that leave us breathless, entranced, enthralled.

Classical pianists like Martha Argerich.

Glenn Gould.

Arthur Rubinstein.

Mitsuko Uchida.

Emanuel Ax.

Argerich’s still around. But sadly, we rarely get to hear her play much anymore due to her unpredictable performance schedule. Luckily, Ax and Uchida are still going strong.

But for me, the best, most reliable pianist alive can be found right in the Berkshires this week. And if you missed him Thursday night at the pitch-perfect Ozawa Hall on the grounds of Tanglewood, be there Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on the opportunity to experience a live performance by pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

Traffic was literally backed up around the block near the entrance to Tanglewood on Thursday night – something I’ve never seen for a weekday classical music concert at Tanglewood. Such long lines are normally reserved for Sunday afternoon performances by violinist Itzhak Perlman or cellist Yo Yo Ma performing with the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra. Then again, Ohlsson isn’t just any pianist.

The 65-year-old native of White Plains, N.Y. is only American to ever win the prestigious International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition held every five years. He won in 1970, beating out Uchida, who finished second. (Argerich won in 1965, in case you were wondering.)

Ohlsson regularly performs a wide range of pieces by numerous composers with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras around the world. This Sunday at 2:30 p.m., he’ll perform Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the BSO. They’ll rehearse the same program on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m.

But personally, it’s Ohlsson’s solo work that I find the most thrilling – and I’m clearly not alone judging by the massive crowd Thursday night. Three years ago, Ohlsson performed several all-Chopin solo concerts at Ozawa Hall, the jewel-box gem of a theater at Tanglewood which frankly should be used far more often for smaller, chamber groups throughout the year. I was lucky enough to see one of those performances at Ozawa in 2010 and my skin still tingles just thinking about that show.

On Thursday, that same, exhilarating feeling came rushing back as I listened to Ohlsson play a wide ranging program that concluded with two Chopin works. What makes Ohlsson such a phenomenal pianist is the way his large hands (I saw them backstage once, they’re huge) seem to caress the keys, coaxing out the faintest whisper of a sound one moment, only to be followed by a barrage of notes played with fervor and flash and fire. Ohlsson truly makes the music come alive.

And watching him, you can tell that Ohlsson feels the music deep in his bones. He’s not just putting on a show. He seems to be channeling the composer, breathing life into music written hundreds of years ago and making it feel more relevant than the latest flash-in-the-pan pop song ever will. We’re truly lucky to have Ohlsson with us performing in his prime.

Thursday’s program began with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in D, Opus 28, known as the Pastoral. This subtle, serene masterpiece perfectly set the mood for the evening. The notes seem to cascade out of the piano, one on top of the other like water flowing down a rocky hillside.

Schubert’s Fantasy in C (the Wanderer) came next. This show-stopping work showed just why Ohlsson remains at the top of his game. I know I’m not doing his performance justice, but I found myself simply lost listening to the music. It was like time stood still. If anything, I would say that Ohlsson’s performance of Schubert’s Wanderer reminded me of the gifted Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel’s haunting singing as the Wanderer in Wager’s “Siegfied” at the Metropolitan Opera last year in New York City. But even that doesn’t truly give Ohlsson enough credit. He’s that great.

After the intermission, Ohlsson returned to play three short works by Charles Griffes, an American composer I wasn’t familiar with before the performance. The third Griffes’ piece, “The White Peacock,” stood out particularly because the piece takes such a subtle, low key approach. The final notes seemed to quietly hang in the air as Ohlsson’s hands hovered over the keyboard.

Then it was time for what many people surely came to hear: Ohlsson performing Chopin. There were two Chopin works on the program: Fantaisie in F minor, Opus 49, followed by Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Opus 31. I could go on and on about how dazzling and divine these works are, but I think the roaring standing ovation at the end said it all.

But that was only the beginning. Ohlsson came back out for an encore featuring another Chopin piece: his Waltz in C minor.

But wait, there’s more. After the first encore, Ohlsson came back out for a second encore. He didn’t say what piece it was, but it sure sounded like Chopin. Whatever it was, the crowd was back on its feet and hungry for more.

Luckily, Ohlsson will be back on stage Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood.

Be there.

By Ken Ross
The Republican