Garrick Ohlsson: View From the Summit – Moonlight and Magic

Essex PIano

Essex Upright, courtesy Theme & Variations, Australia distributors of Steinway & Sons Pianos

Art is a reflection of everyone’s reality and virtuosity in this day and age is in danger of becoming a cliché. With so many wonderful musicians and extraordinary musically inclined performing artists out there, it often seems just about impossible to focus on any one discipline in the performing arts any more. The bar has been raised high right across the board.

Traditionally I am going to date myself by saying I remember a time when many Australian homes had a piano in the living room. Well it certainly seemed that way to me as they were in all my friends homes in the run down post war Sydney neighbourhood I lived in. It was nothing to do with wealth, but everything to do with living a richly layered life.

Mostly upright pianos, they took up pride of place in a corner of the living room and you could count on it that someone in the household was a proficient. In ours my mother Rita spread the magic of music.


Garrick Ohlsson, photo by Paul Body

Phenomenal pianism are two words often used to describe the playing of American pianist Garrick Ohlsson (b. 1948), who learned his craft as a child from his piano teacher and then refined it at the esteemed Julliard School in New York City, before taking on the rest of the world.

Growing up post WWII, it was an era of optimism and promise. Winning the extraordinary difficult and very prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970 aged 22 was certainly extraordinary. Its degree of difficulty is renowned.

His success in this event held every five years, established Garrick Ohlsson as a musician ‘of magisterial interpretive and technical prowess’, or in short, a brilliant piano player.

He says “I went from being a promising young American pianist to someone who had almost arrived,” recalls Ohlsson. “And the invitations began pouring in” he remembers.


Stienway Grand B, courtesy Theme & Variations, Australia distributors of Steinway & Sons Pianos

“Among them, and most happily, was a cancellation at the New York Philharmonic in 1971.” Ohlsson said. Since that time Ohlssen has performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra many times over, returning for over a dozen tours of Poland and headlining in concerts on all the major concert stages of the world.

At the Melbourne Recital Centre on Wednesday 2nd September, 2015 in the Great Performers Concert Series Garrick Ohlssen performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 31 in A flat, Op.110 followed by Schubert’s Fantasy in C, Wanderer-fantasie, D.760 (Op.15) and Spanish composer Enrique Granados Goyescas: ‘Los requiebros’, ‘El fandango de candil’, ‘Quejas, ó la maja y el ruiseñor’, ‘El pelele: Escena Goyesca’, all to thunderous applause.

The audience, which seemed to be at least two thirds men much to my surprise, certainly appreciated his classical discipline, balance, restraint, stamina and precision, with the added bonus of bold ideas, pearls of poetic phrasing, noble drama and quiet greatness.


Garrick Ohlsson on stage playing at the Warsaw Philharmonic in 2010, photo Daniel Barry for the New York Times

There were many passages that reached sublime points, his long elegant fingers enticing sweet sounds from the stunning Steinway Grand, showcasing its full range of both volume and touch, ranging in tone from sweetly sensitive to tumultuously exciting.

For his encore he offered two waltzes by Polish French composer and pianist Fredéric Chopin, a commanding Waltz in E flat (Op. 18) contrasting with a quiet delicate interpretation of the Waltz in C sharp minor (Op. 64, No. 2).

The style on stage Ohlsson embraces is all about dressing for the occasion,  conducting himself with great sensitivity and restraint; decorum. Many people might call it ‘formal’, but it is easy to tell it is out of deep respect for the giant composers whose wondrous works he is playing.

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Garrick Ohlsson at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center in New York, Photo: Richard Perry, The New York Times

Today Ohlssen has become renowned for his performances of the compositions by youthful genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), the dynamic Ludwig van Beethoven (b.1770 – 1827) and the shy Franz Schubert (1797-1828), all giants of the keyboard.

Beethoven’s music not only had a huge impact during his own age, but also has with the many generations of musicians from his day to ours. Ohlssen’s interpretation of his Sonata No 31 was filled with animated contrasts and great dramatic passages.

While Beethoven was a piano virtuoso and fantastic improviser, although not a youthful genius like some of his colleagues, he definitely grew, learned, improved and became inspired with age, mellowing in maturity despite his descending hearing affliction.

This sonata composed when he was completely deaf, was designed to play in a private setting one that was deeply personal, especially as so pleasingly played by Ohlsson.

steinway hand playing on keyboardThere’s always a certain fascination in watching anyone play without music and even at Ohlssen’s age, it can be still daunting to watch. Perhaps it is what we should all expect, but for me it’s so much more than remembering all the notes.

It means to me the notations the composer used to express his technical and emotional intent have become infused in Ohlssen’s being to a point that like any great actor inhabiting a role (Meryl Streep springs to mind) he takes on Beethoven and his concerns when he plays him, as he did also with his wonderful rendition of Schubert’s wanderer.


Ludwig van Beethoven, 1820 by Joseph Karl Stieler from life, courtesy Beethoven-Haus, Bonn

For Garrick Ohlssen has infused the personal traits and characteristics of his admired composers within his own being, to bring forth a performance contemporary with the times when it was new.

I was reminded that all ‘art’ is modern in its age and it is that ‘modernity’ attached to this performance that I had to say I loved best.

‘Not subtle enough in parts’, said one knowing critic behind me out loud at interval, far too bold Beethoven would have been more much more subtle… he declared,  a statement that I would have loved to debate … but coffee beckoned.

Having had people in my own family and worked with people who have suffered from a major affliction like deafness in older age, part of the process is learning to live with such an outcome.

It is all about searching for and finding some sort of inner strength, often exaggerating it to cope with disappointment and the many conflicting deep emotions that assault every fibre of your being.

Beethoven wrote this work when he was just about at the bottom of despair over his deafness.

While being renowned for his subtlety for so long, I humbly suggest that in many respects it may have by now, at least in part, become a casualty.

Certainly in other respects, his deafness aided his brilliance and there are truly wonderful moments in his arrangements when surprises await the listener. His works acquired a new attitude, new meaning, something that is and does remain for me inscrutable. He blazed a new trail of his own, one that was both joyful and tragic and Ohlssen to my mind, captured his intent superbly.

Austrian Composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Austrian Composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Garrick Ohlssen’s Schubert was sensational, filled with torrents of sound.

Truly,” Beethoven was reputed to have exclaimed on his deathbed in 1827, words to the effect “in Schubert there dwells a divine spark”. It was not long after that many mourned Schubert’s tragic death aged 31.

A divinely gifted musician, Schubert was so much more as his works like his ‘wanderer’ today showcase. They tested their composer and indeed their players and listeners often to their limits.

Schubert’s music is described as forming a bridge between classical and romantic composition, which is known more for its melody and songs (lieder) than for its structure.

Many musical scholars concede Beethoven had a huge influence on Schubert who didn’t perhaps have the personal style, social skills or outward refinement of many of his colleagues. Indeed you can find him described as being uncouth as well as unaware of his genius.

While extremely emotional and often ‘romantic’ Schubert’s compositions are conceived and structured in the mode of the classical school of excellence. He produced some of the ‘gems’ of musical literature… despite having lived a forlorn economic existence, struggling always to make a living out of his craft while trying to retain hope.

Ohlsson 3

Garrick Ohlsson

His Fantasie in C major is one of the most technically demanding of all compositions for piano.

Schubert reputedly observing ‘the devil may play it’. Ohlsson’s rendition was certainly delivered with a complete devil-may-care attitude, which was sublime in parts, very unsubtle in others, but always superbly balanced and beautifully played.

This was my favourite work of the night, but then I am a lover of Schubert, especially his lieder works.

After interval we turned to Spain with Granados, where we could all dream as Ohlsson poetically played, providing us with a bountiful atmosphere of moonlight and magic.

I had not heard this work played live before and it took on a whole new dimension for me as its lovely melodies sang and resonated, basking in the glory of the acoustic of the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre

The shifting harmonic colours were captivating and in this Garrick Ohlsson’s exquisite gradations of touch and volume reigned supreme.

Throughout this very special recital Mr Ohlsson certainly displayed his consummate ability and artistry with this trio of works which epitomise the agony and ecstasy of life.

It was a deeply thought-provoking performance, one that was all about life’s journey, taking those at the bottom of the well to the very summit of beauty and a place of hope.

Celebrating Chopin's life and music a fantasy painted in 1840 by Joseph Danhauser with Franz Liszt on piano and listening novelists George Sand and Alexandre Dumas, Hector Berlioz, Giochino Rissini, Niccolo Paganini with a bust of Beethoven the the piano andportrait of Lord Byron on the wall

Celebrating Chopin’s life and music a fantasy painted in 1840 by Joseph Danhauser with Franz Liszt on piano and listening novelists George Sand and Alexandre Dumas, Hector Berlioz, Giochino Rissini, Niccolo Paganini; a bust of Beethoven the the piano and portrait of Lord Byron on the wall


Portrait of Frederic Chopin by Dutch painter Ary Scheffer, 1847, courtesy Dordrecht Museum

Viewed from the audience it was indeed a privilege to be there and to enjoy after the clapping continued, two encores.

Enough to say they were far more than the icing on the cake, but a sincere and deeply felt expression of thanks to Chopin, the man who kick started Garrick Ohlsson’s career and mentored him from past to present.

He painted a very different picture than many might suppose of the so-called stylish ‘romantic’ era, with his always flowing and superbly finessed melodic lines, now and then punctuated with mini dramatic explosions, much like the smouldering passions the aristocrats always disguised that they enjoyed behind a mask of indifference when out and about in public.

Ohlsson’s tinkling of the ivories continued to serenade me to sleep once I was home and again, have filled my waking morning hours today with the beauty of music.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015.

Images of Essex and Steinway courtesy Theme & Variations, Australia


Garrick Ohlsson

Musical ManElisabeth Murdoch Recital Hall
Melbourne Recital Centre

Supported by The John & Jennifer Brukner Foundation and its business, philanthropic, partners and patrons.
Broadcast Live on ABC Classic FM

Ludwig Van Beethoven
(b. Bonn 1770 – d.Vienna 1827)

Piano Sonata No 31 in A-flat, Op. 100

Franz Schubert(b. Vienna 1797-d. Vienna, 1828)

Fantasy in C, Op.15, D.760 Wanderer-fantasie

Enrique Granados
(b. Lleida 1867-d.English Channel, 1969)

Goyescas, Op. 11 (excerpts)

Frederic Francois Chopin
(b. Zelazowa Wola 1810-d.1849)

Waltz in E flat (Op. 18)
Waltz in C sharp minor (Op. 64, No. 2).

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