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Garrick Ohlsson: "Chopin - Complete Works"

img  Tobias Fischer

 Hyperion is not usually a record label in the reissue business except in instances where the recording project warrants exceptional commemoration. In this case, the rebirth of this complete set of Chopin works recorded between 1989 to 2000 by acclaimed pianist Garrick Ohlsson has more music and wisdom to deliver than most worthwhile cycles. Previously available in separate volumes on the now defunct label Arabesque, these were released concurrently during a period when Ohlsson programmed the complete Chopin solo works in a series of recitals in the U.S and several European capitals from 1995 to 1997 that garnered a majority of positive reviews from across the globe. According to Ohlsson, who was the first American to capture the winning prize at the 1970 International Chopin Competition, presenting the entire oeuvre of Chopin came as a natural progression for any pianist’s quest to understand what Chopin had to express in our generation: “What inspired me is to conjure sounds from his [Chopin’s] piano never dreamt of until his arrival on the scene. To achieve this formidable task, a mission to study every note Chopin ever composed as well as everything his pupils, friends and critics had to say about Chopin’s playing is indispensable, not to forget the many letters he himself wrote and received.”

     Ohlsson’s interpretations from these past recitals in the 90s highlighted the pianist as a magisterial interpreter of Chopin. Those present a decade ago may still recall the almost mystical touch from his unfailing melodies in the Nocturnes or reminisce in awe his probing and technical command during the Etudes, altogether ranking him as one of the foremost Chopin interpreters of our time. Here, in these recordings, Ohlsson elected to follow much of the same path, underscoring Chopin’s passion and emotion worlds with a tonal projection revered for bringing tenderness over muscle power, never falling short to bring out to full justice the composer’s ingenious architecture with melodic lines as heard in the Piano Sonatas or the layering of colorful textures as displayed in the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise as well as the 2 Piano Concerti. Garrick Ohlsson remains as compelling a pianist to hear now as he was then, who has a gift to think ahead of his touch that few can righteously master. In doing so, an audience who witnesses Ohlsson at the piano often hears a performance with a point of narrative, yet he is cautious to assure that his thought process is never blurred with clouds of calculation or academicism as if trying to champion himself above the keyboard. These present recordings, recorded in New York City in most part except the Orchestral works, illustrate the realization of a musical testimony from a complete musician of a rare breed. For any piano aficionados, this monumental recording project is indeed an Olympian’s feat not to be missed.

     Ohlsson performs the Polonaises about as well as Rubinstein before him. His Polonaise-Fantasy (Op.61) and Heroic Polonaise (Op.53), as much as they are opposites by what their emotional worlds dictate, were splendidly contrasted. Even if the climax of the Polonaise-Fantasy was a bit detached, the overall piece still triumphed lyrically with clear tempo and dynamic controls that flowed fluidly one phrase to another to execute the desired rhythmic sense of a Polonaise and the nocturnal quality of a Fantasy. On the other hand, the Military Polonaise (Op.40, No.1) had transformed the notion of what some may conceive as a corny-sounding rendition to a victory anthem for the noble, with passagework carefully articulated from both hands to outline those very qualities of this polish dance.

     Ohlsson’s Ballades were unmistakably “songs without words,” a musical success in each case to bring out individual narratives to what music historians had perceived these compositions as an autobiography to Chopin’s very own life. Listen to the First G Minor Ballade, and one could easily be persuaded by Ohlsson’s seductive melodies from 4’15 to the return of the first thematic element that this G Minor Ballade was the story of a sad hero. Although this Ballade stumbled with a few wrong notes between 8’55 to 9’15, this was nevertheless an account noted for its tasteful delicacy and impetuous thundering that can easily rival en par with some of the most treasured versions in existing discographies, including those of Moravec (Nonesuch) and de Groot (Philips), although Zimerman (DG) still has the triumphant edge over all others. On the other hand, the A Minor Ballade seemed to suffer with occasional abruptions and melodic hesitations as evident in the latter part of the work (from 7”50 to 8”00), though the beginning was most sweet and nostalgic until the feverish drama was finally unleashed starting with the passagework from 2’43 and onwards. The A Flat Major Ballade opened with well thought-out thematic materials in the introduction that progressively drew listeners to a spell-bounded narrative as the music unfolded well after 2’18. Likewise, the final F Minor Ballade continued from the previous Ballade in the midst of an exalted dream, diminuendi and ritardandi rife, and here Ohlsson captured the internal melodic dialogues with poignancy and security. If one is searching for an above average interpretation of Chopin Ballades, Ohlsson’s collection can be remembered for its lovely signature of polyphonic effects mimicking three-hand effects. When the emotional tension engorges in the variation and dramatic recitatives, the pianist’s effects were never less than dazzling.

     His set of Études Op.10 opened like a sparkle with the No.1 in C Major, while No.2 in A Minor had crystalline passagework that featured a melodic left-hand. Here, Ohlsson appropriately lightened his touch from what was a slightly heavier interpretation from his live recitals, presenting a rendition of the A Minor that seemed, at times, even comical in nature. The pianist’s dynamic range on the Mason & Hamlin grand piano was well-defined, traversing even the most difficult and far-flung passages with precision reflecting an obvious respect for the repertoire and composer. In contrast to some of the richly-textured and grand pieces of this set, the gems which stressed intimacy and simplistic beauty, such as the Études No.3 in E Flat, No.6 in E Flat Minor and No.7 in C Major were mastered with an intense feeling and a great understanding of the emotional motivations behind these Études. Although some pianophiles may still treasure Ashkenazy’s 1959/60 testimony of the Études above all others especially in the latter of the two volumes, the Études Op.25 of Ohlsson illustrated an artist’s long thought-process to study the highly improvisatory nature of these twelve pieces. The controlled frenzy, for instance in the Étude No.16 in A Minor, had devilish qualities far expanded beyond the pianist’s live recording, while the clarity of double notes in the ‘thirds’ and ‘sixths’ will be as aspiring for any pianists to listen in audio as it will be to witness audio-visually. Taken together, these Études reflected the insights from an artist who had gone to great efforts to channel his intelligent virtuosity towards lyrical means, from the almost dreamy opening of the Étude No.23 in A Minor to the tempest roars of the Etude No.24 in C Minor.

     In the liner notes by Jed Distler, the acclaimed music critic and author has pointed out that the Chopin Mazurkas “represents the soul of Chopin, revealing the facts of his personality and emotions more directly than any other of his compositions.” Here, the 57 Mazurkas recorded by Ohlsson were unfortunately a shade less impressive to highlight these qualities than the many great achievements by the pianist’s former colleagues, such as the house-hold collections of Arthur Rubinstein or Alexander Brailowsky from the turn of the 1960s. Nevertheless, Ohlsson’s Mazurkas should not be easily dismissed as second-rate; the Four Mazurkas Opp.67 and Op.68, for instance, captured Ohlsson’s talent on the keyboard as he outlined the rich palette of colors defining the Polish folk dances. From the recordings of these three pianists, one cannot help but to elevate the genius of Frédéric Chopin and the composer’s fabrication of nationalism through these keyboard miniatures represented by the Mazurkas. Certainly, they could be viewed as the highest form of Art any composer can possibly achieve. As an extension, the 20 Waltzes were none but high-spirited much like a full set of colorful canvas that could lighten up anyone’s drowsy day. The performances blended well with Ohlsson’s cheerful character, and in many ways, these fourteen gems reflected a mood of nostalgia under his fingers. One ought to mention that Ohlsson is a pianist who generally employs rubato only to a certain degree of freedom, never to the kind of exaggerated voicing that some musicians of the older generation felt inclined. The Waltzes from Ohlsson stood out as a more interior reading, such as in the Waltz in B Minor Op.69 No.2, and again in the Waltz in G Flat Major Op.70 No.1, and one comes to admire the very dreamy and reflective nature the pianist achieved over the ivory keys. The sound he projected was full of tonal allure and affection. The recording quality of these Waltzes is incidentally one of the most natural and pleasing from the entire collection.

     Ohlsson deftly handled the subdued and darker moods of the Nocturnes. In fact, Ohlsson showed himself a masterly narrator on the piano in these Nocturnes, and quite compelling a task he achieved where a listener can easily find himself/herself asking for repeats. Try his splendid accounts of the Nocturne in E Flat Major Op.9 No.2, or the equally sweet Nocturne in F Major Op.15 No.1, and these showed Ohlsson at his lyrical best. In the Nocturne Op.9 No.2, the tempo/expression marking might as well have read Andante Cantabile instead of merely Andante. The famous melody took on a delicate, tender, and even a wistful quality was hinted when the left-hand accompaniment remained subordinately subtle. Unlike Ohlsson’s colleague, the Portuguese Maria João Pires, Ohlsson was overall cautious with his use of rubati – a trend noticed in all of his Nocturnes to effect the dreamy, timeless quality of this set of pieces, but never to the degree of exaggeration that one sometimes note in the playing of Pires. All in all, Ohlsson’s Nocturnes have their merits that one could safely rank to the likes of Moravec, de Groot or Zimerman. These were performances that showed how the music itself overwhelms a listener rather than by the displays of the performer, and certainly one of the existing recordings from the discography of Chopin Nocturnes that pays tribute to what one might conceive as the true spirit of Chopin.

     In the three Piano Sonatas, Ohlsson drew listeners to a musical mind that spoke with great clarity and faculty in command. Ohlsson intimated nobody, in that he wanted to let Chopin’s music speak for itself. An enormous degree of craftsmanship went into creating this illusion, and so transparent in the three Piano Sonatas, that a listener from Ohlsson’s readings could appreciate how Chopin’s music speaks for itself in many different languages. Chopin’s tendency to decorate his principal thematic material with fine delicacies and side-weights poses pianists one of the greatest musical difficulties. Take for instance Ohlsson’s choice of phrasing over the main theme in the first movement of the Second Sonata, this may to some sounded a bit rich and overtly precious, while the rest of the work savored enough elegance and muscle-work to make the overall performance a compelling musical experience. The Third Sonata also seemed to be the most individual interpretation on disc, and at the end, it made one pondered how Chopin would have loved this playing.

     Initially, one may be overtaken by the lengths of each Chopin Scherzo: No.1 – 11:24; No.2 – 11:21; No.3 – 9:15 and No.4 – 13:32. These timings appeared to be over extended by the conventional tempi taken by most pianists. In fact, going through these Scherzi in continuation illustrated Ohlsson to be a pianist of incredible pianism, to interpret these Scherzi in a manner no other performer would dare to attempt. Some may have coined these as “heavenly extensions,” and what great difficulties this term could bare for any pianists without the stamina and insights as Ohlsson. Here, the pianist sustained the fieriest and most luminous qualities from these compositions without letting the music disintegrate into fragments. The flow of time seemed nothing more but coherent and succinct to the way in which the music was delivered. Such degree of mastery was the evidence from an artist of scholarly research, capable to sustain the musical forces to such integrity and gigantism. So intense was his concentration even at the radically slow tempi, and to this means, Ohlsson’s Scherzi had a particular dramatic quality that was quintessential to portray the composer’s personal and deepest internal conflicts, fears and longings.

     Except for the Études, Mazurkas and piano accompanied compositions, the Préludes in these recordings were likewise captured on a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano. Admittedly, very few record labels have yet managed to showcase the lustrous quality of this piano to great success. Ohlsson’s recording here was one of the few outstanding exceptions, and the Chopin Préludes succeeded well in the areas of tonal balance, though at times, short-sighted by the strictest definition of the atmosphere in which the music projected through air. How one yearned for the actual feeling of “raindrops” or gloominess in the Prélude No.4 in E Minor; and Ohlsson’s playing here sounded rather dry rather fluid, especially near the final ending where even the Bösendorfer grand made no improvements here. This lack to stimulate one’s senses with the atmosphere continued for the first half-dozen of Préludes, all failing short with depth but dullness until Ohlsson’s music suddenly took flight like angel’s wings beginning with the Prélude No.8 in F Sharp Minor. An exceptional celestial beauty, at once complimented by the Bösendorfer grand, could be heard particularly in the Préludes in F-Sharp Major (No.13), in D Flat Major (No.15) and in A Flat Major (No.17). On the other hand, Ohlsson’s Impromptu in F Sharp Major (Op.36) and G Flat Major (Op.44) from the collection of Imprompti were full of stark but idiomatic contrasts, and were uplifting by the fine phrasing that withstood Ohlsson’s improvisatory quality on the piano.

     The Concerti and Orchestral Works on Volumes 13 and 14 of this set were also impressive accounts, featuring no less than Poland’s very best Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the Polish conductor Kazimierz Kord. Perhaps, there are outstanding recordings that may single-out to offer even superior orchestral support than the ones presented here. However, Ohlsson as a soloist is as impressive as when he is alone in the solo oeuvres, delivering nothing short but a sensitive and beautifully natural tone that had almost a magical quality as if the piano spoke in words than music. In particular, these Piano Concerti parallel the ranks to some of the best found on disc. Interestingly, the recent recording from Chinese pianist Sa Chen on Pentatone, for instance, offered a rather different but likewise as compelling an approach as Ohlsson’s. Both pianists mastered the two Concerti in their own rights like individual poets serving their individual language for the Arts. What attracts a listener to these individual recordings were the pianists’ abilities to convey “a voice within a voice,” more like how the message of a poetry can readily expose itself in the form of music without ever spoken or written in words. The two Larghettos from the Concerti seem to speak more evangelical words that descended from above in the heavens than from the beauty of sound the instrument could capture. This is no small compliment, when a wealth of remarkable recordings currently exists. The other items here for the Piano and Orchestra – namely, the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise, Krakówiak, Fantasia on Polish Airs, and the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations were also splendid accounts that demonstrated competitive efforts from a pianist, whose playing was a total immersion into the world of Chopin.

     The two final volumes on this Chopin collection were devoted to the sessions devoted between Garrick Ohlsson and some of his long-time chamber and vocal friends – a few of whom he continues to collaborate till this day. Among the finest musicians featured here is Ohlsson’s vocal partner, the celebrated Polish contralto Ewa Podleś (pronounced PODE-lesh). Together, the two musicians continue to feature concerts together these days in the United States and across Europe. Here, Podleś had a distinctive presence on record as much as when she is live on stage; the 16 Chopin Songs Op.74 was like the reminiscences to one’s first experience sinking into layers of milky chocolate - sturdy and rich, like fresh honey with a voice that was sweet and sticky. Podleś and Ohlsson have become such a duo that in concerts, the pianist is able to accompany anything with the contralto by memory. The emotion drive and tension from The Maiden’s Wish (No.1), Drinking Song (No.4), Out of my sight! (No.6) and Hymn from the Tomb (No.16) were among the best on record anyone could get. Paired to Ohlsson’s distinctive accompaniment was Podleś polished and smoothed-out upper voice, while at times as in the Faded and Vanished (No.13), one is contrasted to that signature engross lower register range of Podleś, the very darkened voice that aptly portrays the saddened character in the text, lonely and empty in distant lands away from home.

     Anyone wishing a Chopin cycle will be more than enthusiastic to welcome the rebirth of this highly acclaimed Ohlsson collection. Garrick Ohlsson continues to be one of today’s finest pianists and teachers, having presented another mammoth project of the Beethoven Sonata Cycle recently in New York. One reason for his success on stage is that he is a humble pianist seldom boring to the ear or on stage – whether in Beethoven or Chopin. One may not like everything he does, as was initially perceived with his choice on interpreting the Scherzi with slower tempi, but he is one of the very few pianists who can always capture a listener’s attention without ever speaking in words, but through his music-making he can probe into your senses. These sixteen volumes are currently available on a budge price from the record label, in a bargain any Chopin music lover simply couldn’t resist. Hyperion’s sound is known for its excellence in sound quality, and the liner notes from Jed Distler are nothing but informative and up-to-date to current scholarly research. Definitely a rewarding reissue.

By Patrick P. L. Lam

Homepage: Hyperion Records

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