With the rich, full-bodied opening chords played by pianist, Garrick Ohlsson at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on Sunday afternoon, September 30, we were hearing an all Brahms recital demanding extra concentration from the audience and the most refined technical and expressive mastery from the performer.
Just as Garrick Ohlsson’s uniquely rich tone resounded in every crevice of the church his ability to bringing out the many complex expressive inner melodies of this music filled the hearts of all those who were in attendance. Fortunately, it was good attendance for a small community like Santa Cruz and they were able to show their enthusiastic appreciation with a standing ovation after every set.
Unlike other older world-class artists, Garrick Ohlsson, residing in San Francisco and now 70 years young, despite having a bit of a cold on this day showed no lagging in his dedication to his art. Ohlsson is the first and only American to win first prize in the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition, in 1970. He also won first prize at the Busoni Competition in Italy and the Montreal Piano Competition in Canada. Avery Fisher Prize in 1994 and received the 1998 University Musical Society Distinguished Artist Award in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ohlsson has also been nominated for three Grammy Awards, winning one in 2008 besides recording the complete works of Chopin and the 32 Sonatas of Beethoven and with over 80 concertos is still going strong.
Presenting an imposing figure at a height of six feet four inches, Mr. Ohlsson has unusually large hands and can span a 12th with his left hand and an 11th with his right. With his consummate mastery of the piano, he has a vast repertoire of solo and concerto works that has concentrated at times on the works of Frederick Chopin and the complete Sonatas by Beethoven. Yet he astonished audiences a few years ago with a recording of Goyescas by Granados that matched and perhaps even excelled the historic performance by Alicia de Larrocha.
Ohlsson has a big, rich full-bodied sound, which is just right for Brahms and, ironically, just right for the more effete-appearing Frederic Chopin, who at 5/7,” and only 99 pounds, was not effective in larger concert settings and mostly restricted himself to charming the after-hours intelligentsia in Parisian salons. Artur Rubinstein, celebrated for his ability to charm us with his Chopin playing, could, like Garrick Ohlsson, do so with a rich full-bodied tone and was also a fine Brahms player. As an historical footnote, Chopin admired how his music was rendered best by the strong playing of Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt.
In my memory Garrick Ohlsson gave one of those rare performances that one is not likely to forget. The man just knows how to “make” music, crafting it with his unique full-bodied tone that that I think could be easily identified even if one were blindfolded. Yet he had the widest range of dynamics and color which he made full use of with the complex lush music of Brahms.
Brahms was voted in a classical music survey in San Francisco as the composer most people enjoy playing and hearing. Something about the nature of his music seems to make him the ‘musician’s composer.’ It is precisely because of the rich complexity of the music that it is always a risk to perform an all-Brahms program. Garrick Ohlsson probably welcomed the opportunity to test his program with a relatively small audience, though good sized for Santa Cruz, before playing it as part of a cycle of the complete Brahms piano works in a four-concert series to be performed in major Metropolitan areas.
There was no lagging of attention during Ohlsson’s performance. I barely heard a cough or restless shuffling of program during the entire concert. The audience, which consisted of some of the finest pianists and teachers in Santa Cruz area, along with lovers of piano recitals, literally hung on every subtle nuance. It was as though we were experiencing a three-way transmission from Brahms richly passionate music through the performer and finally to the hearts of each of us. Brahms is definitely music of a loving heart. This was demonstrated by the spontaneous standing ovations that occurred after every group of pieces on the program.
The program opened with the Eight Pieces of Op 76, which is the first set of miniature masterpieces that were to comprise the remaining output of Brahms piano music for the larger works, the sonatas and variations were composed earlier. These smaller works are imbued with Brahms’ mastery of his unique method of “developing variation.” The set explores a wide panoply of expression, including the most popular in the series the playful Capriccio in B minor. Many of the pieces in the set have influences of Hungarian gypsy music, which adds a flare of popular charm, as it does in the music of Brahms’ contemporary Franz Liszt. Among this series of capriccios and intermezzi, a genres that Brahms helped to create, many are surprisingly difficult to play — with the final Capriccio in C major being one of the most difficult of all his short works.
Garrick Ohlsson’s superlative playing prompted John Orlando, pianist and director of the distinguished series. to exclaim during intermission, “He makes playing the piano seem easy!” Easy in Garrick Ohlsson’s case, however, does not seem boring. With no overt ostentatious display as we find with many fine players these days, he was able to captivate our attention and draw us into the richness of the music. Forgive me if I overuse the word “rich,” but Brahms’ music and Garrick Ohlsson’s performance give singular meaning to that word. I thought that I had heard most of Brahms’ piano music but the two sets of Variations of Op. 21 were a wonderful surprise. Like Beethoven Brahms was a master of variation form and it became one of the essence of his compositional technique.
After intermission, we heard the four lyrical Brahms Ballades of Op 10. While Chopin completed his extraordinary four Ballades 12 years earlier, Brahms was projecting in a different and more subtle genre. Chopin’s Ballades may depict an indefinite, and extended more tumultuous story line, while with Brahms derived his Ballades from narrative poetry. The most famous of the set is the D minor Ballade which was inspired by Scottish poem, “Edward” that tells a grisly tale of deception and murder. It is the best example of Brahms’ bardic style.
These are youthful works of Brahms. By youthful I don’t mean ‘lesser,’ because as Garrick Ohlsson stated privately after the concert, Brahms only left us his masterpieces. No one knows how many works he discarded or destroyed before allowing one to survive. He published only six string quartets, but discarded 25!
The 18th and 19th century variation form can be understood as an exercise and display of compositional technique. From an expressive point of view in many instances it was more than that, but at least in the two sets of variations of Op 21, they were at least that. The first set was composed a few years later than the second set of variations on a Hungarian Song. In the first set of Variations on An Original Theme, Brahms set several challenges by creating irregular 9 bar phrases for the theme committing himself to have to follow the same for the 11 variations that follow. This was followed by the 2nd set Variations on a Hungarian Theme which is much more regular in form and makes a better conclusion when playing both sets.
The program concluded with the first book of Variations on a Theme of Paganini op 35. The two sets of variations are considered along with the Chopin Etudes as the apex of pianistic challenges and difficulties and was composed by Brahms in 1863. The theme, which has since been used by many composers including Rachmaninoff and Busoni, is the Caprice No 24 by the first musical superstar, violinist Niccolo Paganini. That Brahms intended his work to serve as a series of etudes is evident. The work is known for its emotional depths and technical challenges. Clara Schumann, Brahms’ close friend a muse, herself one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century called it Hexenvariationen (Witches Variations) because of their difficulty. Its showy virtuosity rivals the works of Liszt and they were composed for Liszt’s student, the renowned piano virtuoso Carl Tausig.
A review cannot fully depict the experience of hearing Garrick Ohlsson playing. However, I recommend your viewing his performance of Chopin’s first Ballade in G Minor. It displays the all-embracing lush tone of His playing and his depth of expression. It is no wonder he was the only first prize winner of the 1970 Warsaw Chopin competition and then the Busoni.