Pianist gives familiar Chopin pieces a new twist

Garrick Ohlsson
Fort Worth Star Telegram

By Chris Shull

Garrick Ohlsson knows his way around Chopin’s piano music. Since he was the first American to win the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970, he’s been one of the composer’s most vibrant interpreters.

On Tuesday at Bass Hall, Ohlsson played a solo recital that featured everyone’s favorite Chopin, the 24 Preludes, Op. 28. Most in attendance at the Cliburn at the Bass performance were probably familiar with the music, especially the popular preludes practiced by piano students everywhere.

But many might not have heard the pieces played quite the way Ohlsson played them — he often veered away from the straightforward interpretations for a bold, individual approach. Melodies were often buried in boisterous accompaniments. He’d savor clashing chords, accent a passing dissonance, and speed gracious melodies into a glistening, golden blur.

The most famous melodies gave listeners music to hang on to — the low, sad song under gentle chimes of Prelude No. 6, the lilting waltz of No. 7, here frozen in a dream. The delicate song of Prelude No. 15 floated lazily; he built a stony edifice from the sad chorale of Prelude No. 20 — the music’s weight and dynamics a contrast of resolution and lonely weeping.

Ohlsson’s playing sometimes sacrificed painterly mood for sheer sonics, poetry for overt passion, but his preludes always surprised and amazed. He’s a veteran virtuoso finding new trails on long-studied musical maps, seeking hidden gems or long-forgotten truths.

Ohlsson’s recital began with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13, Quasi una fantasia, the bass scales quietly prancing. An explosion of sound returned to whispered elegance; in each movement, he massaged melody and accompaniment for nuanced colors and chord weights.

In Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, his execution was again effortless, emotion again contained — his playing was bejeweled, but a bit standoffish.

After Chopin’s Preludes, Ohlsson returned for two encores, the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 13 No. 3 and the famous Waltz in E-flat major, Op. 18. The latter was a delight, with skipping stutter steps and laughing cascades capturing the glittery excitement and tingling intrigue of a fairy tale ball.