Tanglewood: Garrick Ohlsson: Two evenings of triumph

Garrick Ohlsson
Berkshire Eagle

By Andrew L. Pincus

Besides the 200th anniversary of the birth of Chopin and Schumann, 2010 is the 40th anniversary of Garrick Ohlsson's triumph in the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, which launched his Chopin-spangled career.

The two landmarks coincided in the American pianist's pair of Chopin recitals Tuesday and Thursday nights at Tanglewood. In all-encompassing technique and intellectual and emotional breadth, these season-closing programs were landmarks in their own right. Ohlsson's powers at the keyboard seem superhuman, but the dazzle and thunder that emerge are the stuff of human drama.

Preoccupied with in-house anniversaries -- the music center's 70th and the festival chorus' 40th among them -- the Boston Symphony Orchestra bypassed the celebrations of both composers this summer. There were a couple of programs of Schumann's vocal music in Ozawa Hall, but it was left to Ohlsson to do the Chopin honors.

Chopin and Schumann have much in common besides birth year. Composing in the shadow of Beethoven, both ushered piano music fully into the romantic era in both form and mood. But where the German Schumann strung pieces loosely together, the Polish-Parisian Chopin worked primarily in tightly organized forms, even in such pieces as ballades, fantasies and nocturnes. (Unlike Chopin, too, Schumann also left a considerable body of vocal, chamber and symphonic music).

Like Ohlsson's 2006 Beethoven piano sonata cycle, the two Chopin programs provided a deep immersion into a composer's world. Each program began with a bouquet of shorter pieces and ended with an extended work: the 24 Preludes, Opus 28, on Tuesday and the Sonata No. 3 on Thursday. Many pieces were concert favorites, but along the way there were a few surprises.

Chopin emerged as a revolutionary. That's not exactly news, but the combined virtuosity, transparency and elasticity of the playing made the distinct harmonies and counterpoint stand out as essential strata of the music. Chopin has his dreamy side, of course; that's part of the romantic soul. Ohlsson's Chopin used discipline of means to attain freedom of expression.

Probably the greatest feat on Tuesday was varied character of the preludes, from the gentle poetry of the familiar No. 15 to the rolling thunder of No. 16. But somehow the Fantasy, Opus 49, stuck most in memory. It wasn't just for the massive chords and runs alternating with mystery-shrouded slow passages -- those things ran all through the two programs -- but for the fantasy's dark tone overall. In its voyaging to far places of the mind and spirit, this also was the evenings' most Schumann-like piece.

In Thursday's program, Ohlsson established mastery and mood right away with a generous play of tempo, dynamics and color that magnified the three early nocturnes of Opus 9. Chains of glittering notes and dazzling runs marked the subsequent pieces.

The introspective Chopin stepped aside for the playful Chopin in a set of variations on a rondo from a long-forgotten opera by Louis-Joseph Herold. Rather than play only two of the mazurkas from Opus 7 as planned, Ohlsson announced that he was going to play all three. The concluding sonata was remarkable for its structural coherence through many ideas and moods, from the introspection and lyricism of the largo to the finale's racing brilliance.

Again, there seemed an emotional high point in the evening: the often-played Ballade No. 1. Tender lyricism and blazing drama made its storytelling seem freshly mysterious.

Both programs came with two Chopin encores. There were two waltzes (one with a distinct Viennese flair) on Tuesday, and a famous etude and polonaise on Thursday -- both of the later offered, Ohlsson said, because neither form had been represented on the main programs.

Large audiences applauded both recitals wildly. Just so. In the face of such playing, we ordinary mortals can only look, listen and marvel.