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A Chopin Transcendence

New York
Venetian Theater, Caramoor Gardens
07/30/2023 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1, & in B Major, Op. 9, No. 3 – Barcarolle in F‑sharp Major, Op. 60 – Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49 – Scherzo No. 3 in C‑sharp Minor, Op. 39 – Impromptu in F‑sharp Major, Op. 36 – Piano Sonata in B Minor, Op. 58
Garrick Ohlsson (Pianist)

G. Ohlsson (© Reference Recordings)

I wish I could throw off the thoughts which poison my happiness, but I take a kind of pleasure in indulging them.
Frédéric Chopin

While Shakespeare’s Dogberry swears that “Comparisons are odorous”, one can’t help comparing Garrick Ohlsson’s Chopin to a crystal bottle of Chardonnay, consumed on a breezy summer afternoon a forest of oak trees and blossoming flowers. Outside of the wine itself, Mr. Ohlsson’s recital yesterday perfectly fit the description. The oak and pine forests surrounded the verdant gardens in the 90‑acres Caramoor Music Center. Mr. Ohlsson wearing a white summery jacket, produced a lean, crisp, freshly structured Chopin miscellany. To use the term of oenologists and musicians, the pianist produced notes. Notes of flowers and spices and a balanced exaltation of Romantic sensitivities.

Okay, forget the metaphors, remember the music. After all, Garrick Ohlsson and Frédéric Chopin have been conjoined for half a century. The first American winner of the International Chopin Competition in 1970, his initial recordings were naturally Chopin. And while his repertory includes all the great 19th Century composers through to Scriabin, Ohlsson and Chopin are instinctively coupled.

Not a “perfect” couple. Perfection, like canned wine, tends to be boring. Mr. Ohsson was never idiosyncratic, but he never bored. In a Waltz encore, he played 16 measures with an oom‑pah‑pah left hand, then repeated the same measures with a rippling limpid right hand. I had heard the Barcarolle last week played by Manuel García García with gracious tunes. Mr. Ohlsson realized that this Venetian boatman’s song was in Caramoor’s Venetian Theater, punctuating the opening Venetian rhythms, going into an Italian opera duet, and ending with a transformed triumph of the original theme.

Those who affirm that Chopin created heavenly moments but–unlike Beethoven or Liszt–awkward organic metamorphoses, never heard Garrick Ohlsson play the 3rd Sonata. Yes, the piece is technically demanding. (Though his reputedly large hand‑span eliminates that problem.) Instead we had three movements of towering intensity. The opening was dramatic, the second movement–like the finale of the 2nd Sonata–was a turbulent whirlwind. The finale was, both virtuosic and well-punctuated.

The Largo third movement broke the rules, at least for this writer. We are supposed to pay careful attention to notes and interpretation, to think of it as a nocturne, not to let our minds go wandering. And yet, who but an ice‑cold pedant could resist the clouds breathing through the piano, the sun’s rays turning black, returning as glittering lights? The Chopin quote at the top of this review–where the composer cannot resist the pleasure of the poison thoughts–was so much part of Garrick Ohlsson’s five minutes of jewels, that all else felt minor.

The Sonata was the end, but the start, two Nocturnes augured things to come The first Nocturne was an unfurling of a long melody with a thundering middle section. The early B Major Nocturne was a contrast, a waltz leading to roars of anger.

Lovely as it is, the Fantasy has so many fantastic facets that it can easily fall apart with lesser artists. Mr. Ohlsson took each of the sections on its own merits intense, martial and of course funereal. And of course the Scherzo was anything but a joke. (Did Chopin know or care about the meaning of the word? Or was his idea of a jokey title?) Under Mr. Ohlsson’s hands, it was dissonant, startling at times, with beautifully tempered loveliness at other times.

Let me rescind that opening oenological metaphor, replacing it with a truth. Garrick Ohlsson didn’t “do” anything with Chopin. His strength was directly emotional and architecturally structured. Accent, color and phrasing is but the undercurrent for the grand firm line which makes Chopin’s music profoundly significant.

Harry Rolnick



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