By R.M. Campbell
Frederic Chopin was born in Warsaw in 1810 and by the time he was in his early 20s he had settled in Paris for the rest of his short life. Although he had problems attracting the fickle Viennese and political problems in Italy marred his stay there, he was pretty much a huge success most of his life. His biggest issue was tuberculosis which killed him at the age of 39. His music, almost entirely for the piano, was beloved in his day and remains so today, 200 years after his birth.
The composer has long been a national hero in his native Poland. That worship is expressed in many ways, one of which is the Chopin International Piano Competition, one of the world’s most prestigious. Garrick Ohlsson was the first American to win the competition in 1970 which gave him instant fame and a reputation as a Chopin specialist. With his quick-silver mind and broad interests, Ohlsson has explored a good share of the musical world, not to mention others, but Chopin has always been a major factor in his artistic life.
Many well-known pianists have only a passing acquaintance with Seattle, if that, but Ohlsson has a long history here, playing both recitals and chamber music as well as with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Chopin has often played a major role in those concerts. Not so long ago he played all of Chopin’s etudes — an immensely difficult enterprise — in one evening at Meany Hall. This season he is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his winning the Chopin Competition by doing a two-part program devoted to the composer. The first was Wednesday night at Meany and the second, Tuesday, Feb. 9, also at Meany. Wednesday’s concert was sold-out with a long, long line at the box office. I have no doubt that the February concert will be equally in demand.
Surely one of Ohlsson’s attributes that impressed the jury at the Chopin Competition was his towering technique which can overcome any technical difficulty with seeming ease. There are few smudges as his hands gallop across the keyboard. Regardless of how powerful a technique he possesses, it is never loudness for loudness’ sake. A few of our younger virtuosos should pay attention. That vivid sense of articulation informs everything he does, creating a world that is both lucid and compelling. As amazing as his virtuosity is, it never slips into mere bravado. He also has a remarkably beautiful and clear tone. It is at times limpid or noble or commanding. Whatever it is, the ear is first captured which is then held by the brain.
His style can be pungent but it is often cool in its mastery of the printed page. It is always intelligent and thoughtful. It is also natural and balanced. Ohlsson has temperament but it is kept in check. No wild excesses with this American pianist. This coolness is good and not-so-good. There are times when one wants poetry to rein over the intellect.
His program began with a potpourri in the first half: an impromptu here, a ballade there (A -flat Major), a fantasy, a brace of nocturnes and the C-Sharp Minor Scherzo to conclude. There was drama, excitement and sweet lyricism. All that one has come to expect from Ohlsson was present. The second half was the Opus 28 — his 24 Preludes. There is a huge variety of form and mood and texture to these miniatures. In fact, they are complete themselves, preludes to nothing. It is the task the pianist to capture the essence quickly and decisively. Ohlsson did. They were the highlight of the concert.