Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

Garrick Ohlsson

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@]gmail.com. A complete list of our interviews can be found here.

A native of White Plains, New York, Garrick Ohlsson studied with Rosinna Lhevinne at the Juilliard School and was the winner of the Ferruccio Busoni competition in 1966 and the International Montreal competition in 1968. In 1970, the 22 year-old captured the attention of the music world by winning the International Fryderyk Chopin competition in Warsaw. Ohlsson has received a Grammy and he has also recorded the complete piano works of Chopin. Below is the transcript of our conversation with Garrick Ohlsson, which took place on February 4, 2012 at his beautiful home in San Francisco.

EH: People have often spoken about the similarities between Mozart and Chopin. What are your thoughts on these and the differences in pianistic writing and stylistic effects between the composers ?

Ohlsson: Well, there are lots of both. Clearly and as we know, Chopin was internally really a classicist. He was the prime romanticist and symbol of the Romantic music movement, and of course, he was romantic. But as we know, his interests were in Bach and Mozart, principally. They were the only critics he was interested in, even though they were dead. Chopin loved bel canto and was very aware of the music of his time. There’s no question about it. However, I think that the things that are similar are of the fact that you need balance and transparency in both of them to an extraordinary degree.

Chopin writes a lot more crowdedly for the piano. Piano-writing had developed organically as time went by; composers challenged the instrument more, and of course, the instrument was developing in response to the changing times and to the composers’ wishes. I would say that the thing about Chopin is that even though he is unbelievably complex in terms of note-writing, it all has to be as clear as Mozart. I mean, it is all doable.

Of course, you could say that in the later Romantics - Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Scriabin and so on, that you should do everything they wrote, because certainly that’s what Rachmaninoff did when he played. But nevertheless, there is such a woosh of sound that not everything is as transparent. I mean, you don’t get as beautiful a woosh if you’re not perfect. But with Chopin, you really hear it.

Also, what’s similar is the fact that they both described rubato in the same way, which is a way nobody I know can actually do. We understand the whole idea of Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ with a fixed accompaniment; pop-singers can do it, and even opera singers can hint at it. Chopin was a great opera fan and Mozart is one of the great opera composers. Their music is vocal. Mozart’s music for piano is more vocal than Chopin’s, in the sense that you can imagine more of it being sung; Chopin is sort of the transmogrification of it. Most of Chopin’s melodies are really not very sing-able because of their range. The funny thing about him is that he invokes the feeling of singing on the piano. He understands the diminuendo process so much. He understands the relationship of intervals and the accompaniment.

I think Chopin sits on the cusp of Classical Romanticism. Chopin without a Classical foundation, without clear structure, without balance and an understanding of what he’s doing musically, becomes all magic, perfume, smoke and mirrors, etc. It’s really gorgeous, but it’s really kind of sickening after a while. However, Chopin played only as a Classicist, without the magic and the moonlight, is worthless, you know ?

Now, Mozart is much more of a pure composer, in that he does not – in a slow movement of a concerto, need to make your eyeballs roll back in this kind of ecstatic response. You get this occasionally in Mozart, but not so frequently. Mozart, of course, has a much wider range in terms of types of music and the force of his music. What’s remarkable about Mozart is the human range, that he can find a response for any human situation – from a coronation, to a tragedy, or the famous incident of Barbarina and the loss of the pin in Figaro. He just finds the right character. Chopin is not as wide in that sense. He developed what Mozart started - and of course, what Beethoven, Schubert, and Weber did as well, which is the expansion of the left hand.

Bach didn’t write many Alberti basses. These are the prolongation, the orchestration of harmony in a way that doesn’t sound chunky. Chopin brought this to its ultimate development. He also did this with the use of the pedal, which Mozart doesn’t fuss with almost at all.

EH: The Mozart concerto that you performed in San Francisco is one of the great masterpieces of the era. How would you describe the three movements of this celebrated work ?

Ohlsson: Well, first of all, this is a very important piece for Mozart. He’s just at that transitional point in his life where he’s leaving Salzburg and going to Vienna. He’s already shown the world who he is as a prodigy; now he’s going to show them who he is as a mature composer. And of course, it’s remarkable right from the start because he has the orchestra interrupted by the piano. Clearly, the first movement is a constant dialogue and he is always taking surprise turns. The piano answers the first half of the first phrase; it then sits and listens to the tutti - as it always does, and then comes in two bars too early. They’re going to the cadence there. What is the piano going to say in response ? You suddenly get this trill like, ‘Here I am – may I now come in ?’ (laughs). Then there is the development of the themes.

There is always dialogue. They are always talking with each other like characters in an opera or a drama. It’s not at all like Chopin’s concertos or many other Romantic concertos, which are more a soliloquy for the soloist, with an accompaniment. This is really symphonic chamber music. The first movement is full of beautiful melodies, as Mozart always writes.

The slow movement is remarkable writing, especially for a young composer. It is so tragic, so mournful, filled with canons, etc. It really is a heavy, tragic sound here. And in the third movement, it’s like he can’t stop writing. He’s excited, it’s a whirl, and he just goes on and on. Once again, it’s one theme after another, topsy-turvy, and it’s very animated. It then stops at a cadenza point, and suddenly, you get a minuet. You wonder, ‘what is this ? this is very unusual,’ (laughs). He interrupts himself and is serious about it. It’s not like he gives you a taste and then stops – it’s not a joke.

After the cadenza, he sort of picks up and continues again. It has that sort of manic excitement that we find in the finale of the Second Act of Figaro, where Mozart just can’t stop writing music; it’s just pouring out of him. It’s probably another characteristic that Chopin sometimes shared, even though we know that Chopin worked as hard as Beethoven – I mean, in terms of furious ‘crossings-out’ and ‘try agains’. Yet, his music sounds like it was invented on the spot. Mostly, we have this idea that Mozart sort of composed and perfected everything in his head, but he worked a little harder than that too (laughs). He shares this incredible fluency and the music seems to happen right on the spot; it doesn’t feel premeditated. When you look at it, you know it is, and deeply so, but there’s this feeling of ‘I just thought of this right now,’ and it’s this constant sense of surprise and wonder.

EH: Speaking of wonder, what are your thoughts on the Chinese phenomenon, Lang Lang ?

Ohlsson: There will always be detractors of such a phenomenon. They’ll say, ‘Well, does he really play that well ?’. I don’t know if he’s going to be ranked up there in the history of piano playing with Horowitz and Michelangeli – not many of us are, but he plays really well. There’s no question about it.

Lang Lang is a phenomenon of our time. He’s not just a pianist. In every generation, there are a couple of artists that cross over into the public consciousness. It’s a person who has the combination of particular talents, charisma, and all the ingredients. They become iconic. In my generation, there is Yo-Yo Ma. I don’t think anybody can aim for that. Would Liszt have been so great on TV ? Maybe young Liszt, who was beautiful and very striking; old Liszt with all his warts might not have been such a great guest on the Late Night Show.

EH: You are the only American to have won First Prize at the International Fyrderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw. At the last Chopin competition, only two American pianists advanced to the third round. In your opinion, is there something preventing young American pianists from truly realizing the spirit of Chopin ? Is this indicative of a difference in our culture ?

Ohlsson: I wonder. That last part of your question is my favorite. First of all, let me start off by saying that I don’t know the answer and I don’t know many people who do. I mean, this far transcends the whole idea which was not all current in Warsaw, but discussed. Don’t forget, Warsaw and Poland – it’s not as big of a country as America, but it has lots of different facets. The love of Chopin in Poland is so ingrained in the culture. He is a national symbol, even for those who aren’t particularly musical. And lots of people in Poland know his music better. I mean, you might say they know it the way Americans know their Super Bowl, you know ? It’s just kind of there. So there is a discussion and a certain segment of musical society – and it’s been going on long before I was born – that believes that you need to be Polish to play Chopin, basically. You see, they see Chopin from a nationalistic point of view, and there is also an international point of view.

My answer right after the 1970 Chopin competition was, “Look, he belongs to all of us. The whole world adores Chopin,”. All musicians and all pianists know Chopin and feel he is theirs. Well, practically every pianist (laughs), even ones who don’t play much Chopin. It’s just something, a part of breathing when you play the piano. You grow up with it and have a deep emotional tie with Chopin.

Then to define ‘Who’s got the correct Chopin ?’, I don’t know. Rosinna Lhevinne, who at the time was the most famous teacher in the world, advised me to go to the Tchaikosvky competition to advance my career. Her reasoning was that A) her students had won it in the past, and B) she had a cultural point. She said, “you know, Russians are a lot more like Americans (speaking in 1969). It’s a wide open space, they love big cities, big style, big virtuosity, big personalities. The Poles tend to be more Francophile, more Europhile, prizing refinement, sensibility and balance. Such a culture might view Americans or even Russians as kind of cowboys – very attractive, but a little over-muscular, a little too athletic, too extroverted,”. Of course, understanding that these are all wild generalities, and she understood that.

I didn’t listen to her counsel and did very well. She mentioned that one of the really problematic things for me would be the mazurkas. Mazurkas are based on Polish folk dances. She said “Russians can do sort of well because at least we are neighbors. We know what this music is and even have some mazurkas ourselves,”. But basically, the sort-of intuitive understanding is not so close. Well, I won the prize for mazurkas and it was really a very nice surprise. I was coached very carefully by my other teacher.

The whole question of why people have a certain affinity for certain music and not others is… I first studied with Lhevinne when I was twenty. I had changed from one Juilliard teacher to another. She had never heard me play,but had heard of me and wanted to work with me. At my very first lesson with her, she said, “Play me something that you feel you play well,”. So I played the Barcarolle (Op. 60) by Chopin for her. She applauded, and said, “Wonderful! Now come here, my dear, and talk to me”’. She was 90 at the time. She then said, “You know, you’re a born Chopin player. This is rare. Everybody plays Chopin, but this is your métier. You have the sound, the style, the feeling,”. She came from an era where Chopin-playing was the definitive part of musical culture and pianistic culture.

In the case of Americans, I think she had a point. I think in American musical culture, as I understand it in my generation and even later and before, America benefited from the cataclysms of the Russian Revolution and World War II. We got all these Russian and German-world musicians - and indeed other European musicians - who found refuge here and became teachers. Many of the American pianists who came before me played Chopin very beautifully. But it wasn’t until my generation, of the ones who have played lots and lots of Chopin over the years, that some have been labeled as Chopin ‘specialists’ – particularly, Emanuel Ax, Murray Perahia, and myself. I don’t know if this is cultural. Emanuel happens to be born in Poland but he went to Canada, and then he came to New York. Murray isn’t any of those things, and I’m none of the above (laughs). So it is a very funny question of affinity.

In terms of winning the Chopin prize, I don’t think you can go much with nationality. You’ve had some Poles and Russians, not surprisingly. You’ve had Russian, Russian, Russian, Russian, Russian, Russian, Pole, Pole, an Italian, an Argentinian, an American, another Pole, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc. I think the talent and affinity really rises above nationality and cultural considerations. But of course, any country like China now, who is going to produce some 60 million piano students, is going to have a lot of Chopin. And some very talented pianist is going to have some kind of special affinity. What does it mean to have an affinity for Chopin ? It means you have a real sensibility for sound, and not just pretty sound, but meaningful sound with inflection. You have to be able to organize the message, be able to play blisteringly difficult music beautifully and make it sound natural and simple. You have to have a very good sense of musical architecture. I’ve often said that one of the reasons that many of the Chopin winners have big careers – and not every competition is that way, is the fact that to be a really good Chopin player, you have to a really good musician and a really good pianist full-stop. Otherwise, it’s nonsense.

EH: Every pianist in history has struggled with them, and you have recorded both sets marvelously. Which is the most difficult Chopin Etude for your hand ?

Ohlsson: I’m going to guess (thinks)... this may surprise you, but I am going to say…the Winter Wind (Op. 25 No. 11). I think I play it fine, but it’s a question of endurance. It’s heavier than some of them; the first is very heavy as well, and so is the last. But some aren’t as long (laughs). The Winter Wind just goes on and on and on. It’s really tiring, and as Charles Rosen points out in his book about the Romantics, Chopin was sadistic. I mean, he wasn’t really sadistic, but often, when the music comes to its most intense emotional point – especially in the tragic pieces, that’s often where the difficulties are greatest.

About three-and-a-half minutes into the Winter Wind, you’ve been doing this rather tricky and fast and loud stuff for a long time, he just ups the notch! So, really, the technical difficulty corresponds with the musical difficulty and the emotional intensity of the piece.

The Octaves is also not easy. They’re all hard in different ways. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but for example, the etude in thirds (Op. 25 No. 6) did not ever torture me. I don’t know why. Ever since I was twelve, it did not torture me, just like Liszt’s Feux Follets doesn’t torture me. I luckily wiggle that way naturally. The second etude from Op. 10, I hate that one and love it too. I’m very proud of it, but I was taught that in the most painstaking way by my teacher who prepared me for the Chopin competition, Olga Barabini.

For this etude, she actually had me figure out, quite scientifically and very unspontaneously, the best fingering for my hand. There aren’t too many choices (laughs) but everybody wiggles – it’s a good word - a little differently. I’m lucky I have a big hand that’s flexible. So she had me prepare the melody, the 3-4-5 stuff, for the next week as a sort of flute-solo. I had to have the right fingering with no cheating, as well as the left-hand accompaniment. She didn’t want me to just play or practice that – she wanted a performance. That’s already very difficult. The assignment for the next week was to play that solo with the added thumb. The week after that was to play the solo along with the index finger. I can’t say that it ever got easy, but I know that a member of the jury in Warsaw told me, afterward, “We thought you were it from the beginning, but when you played the etudes…. No. 1 was fantastic, but No. 2, it seemed so easy for you,”. I can’t do that unless I practice for a month or so now (laughs). But this was one of Olga’s tactics: divide and conquer.

EH: In your opinion, is Chopin a composer who projects well in large concert halls ? Is there perhaps an intimacy that is lost ?

Ohlsson: Yes (laughs). I feel so. The way he designed his music - Chopin hated large halls - I would say that it’s better in a smaller environment. It’s very good in a small room with a nice piano, but nevertheless, it’s not small-scale that way, just as Mozart also projects well in a large hall, paradoxically. I mean, sometimes people say, ‘Well, Mr. Ohlsson, you played the concerto on a modern piano,”. Well, of course, it’s a modern hall. The piano in Mozart’s time, which is a slightly different art-form, wouldn’t sound well in Davies Hall. It would lose what little charm it has and you would lose nuance and projection. I don’t think Mozart always expected small-voiced singers for his operas. In any case, I think we have a convention that responds to a need. If you’re playing in Davies Hall, I think you need to have a modern piano, otherwise, it’s going to have to be an Antiquarian exercise.

On the other hand, someone like Liszt is certainly an orator to the multitudes. He stirs up the big public. Sometimes he is very intimate too, but he is often addressing a sort of huge-scale - thinking of old Roman orators, there’s just something stirring them, moving heroism and ‘bring them to tears’, etc. (laughs). There is an external show of emotion for Liszt, whereas with Chopin, it’s generally much more internal.

Of course, there are exceptions for every rule, and for Chopin, a great piece like the Fantasy in F-minor is a big public piece. That’s not a whisper in the drawing room (laughs). Even the textures of it are not exactly Lisztian, but the gestures are big and the blocks of themes are vividly contrasted. For most of Chopin’s works, he’s moving from emotional state to emotional state, sometimes even within two or three bars.

EH: Last year was the bicentennial of his birth, and you mentioned this composer in a recent interview with the NY Times. What is your thought process when you are playing or listening to the Bm Sonata of Franz Liszt ?

Ohlsson: I don’t actually picture stories when I play. I recognize the dramatic elements and how they can be dramatized. It’s very clear in the Liszt Sonata that, well, it’s practically all one theme, maybe two. Actually, there are three or four, and they’re practically all related, but the very fact that this diabolical, this Mephistophelian theme becomes the tender love theme transformed, is very interesting. It’s two sides of one nature. It doesn’t suggest to me an actual story. I tend not to have narrative in my head, except that it’s really more of a purely musical – like in Beethoven’s Appassionata, when the theme starts after about one page, and you get three notes for it, but then you get the fortissimo chords, I don’t think ‘Oh, it’s a storm!’ or ‘He’s upset,’. I just think, ‘Beethoven’s made a violent interruption,’. In other words, I don’t know what it is, but there’s no question that he’s interrupted the theme. So for me, there is unquestionable violence, and at the very least, violent contrast, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t believe it’s lightning coming down from heaven or a car crash. I tend not to picture things that way. In other words, I’m not much in a music appreciation mode, “well, these here are the leaves” etc. I get kind of sick of all that stuff (laughs).

But I do sense that there is pure drama, musically, in the way that the elements are juxtaposed, like in the Appassionata. And if you don’t bring that across the public, you ‘ve failed – no matter who you studied with, what instrument you’re playing, or however fine your thoughts are. And if the second theme of the Appassionata doesn’t sound lyric and peaceful - I mean, those things are so obvious that any good pianist will get them. Those are the things that drive a piece.

But yes, there is a kind of passion, a heaven and hell aspect, love both divine and human, in the B minor sonata. It really takes you on a wild, wild musical journey.

EH: You mentioned once that you were slightly disappointed after hearing Horowitz for the first time in live performance.

Ohlsson: (laughs). I probably shouldn’t have said that. I am a huge Horowitz fan. I was seventeen at the time. Horowitz had been in retirement for twelve years. The first time I heard him was the famous 1965 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. It was fantastic – just unbelievable. But… Horowitz was such a legend that all of us young pianists thought, 1) Will he ever play again ? 2) Will I be able to hear it ?

I was obsessed with him, and I did, and it all came true. But in those days at Carnegie Hall, even now, you go to listen to the greatest in the world. And back then, we regularly heard the best! Gilels, Richter, Serkin, Arrau; young Ashkenazy was just phenomenal, and Michelangeli was also around in those days. We heard an unbelievably high standard of playing. Gilels was considered an ordinary great pianist in those days, and hardly anyone can touch him today (laughs). Richter had made his second tour of America in April of ’65, a month before Horowitz’ May concert. And he was just on fire.

EH: On that note, Richter has been criticized for the quality of some of his recordings. How different was his sound in live performance ?

Ohlsson: I believe it was very different. Now, this brings up the whole question of charisma. There are artists that you hear live and you have this incredible impression of them, and when you hear it on recording, it’s different. Horowitz had charisma as well, by the way. But Richter had this uncanny ability – it was actually the sound and pacing – to make you believe. For example, the most discussed was the famous incident with the Schubert Piano Sonata (D.960), which he starts really slow. It’s like, “You’ve…got…to…be…kidding…”. And I remember hearing it once in London. I knew it was going to be slow and I loved him, and I thought to myself, ‘it can’t be any other way’. I think Glenn Gould had a similar kind of thing. Have you heard his Fifth Sympony Beethoven-Liszt transcription ? It’s really slow, but it has its own internal logic and it makes you believe. So Richter had that.

In 1965 Richter was at his and the human peak (laughs). He just had the roof coming off of the place. It was that hair-raising. So back to Horowitz, I expected it to be about five times as much as Richter, at his peak. And he wasn’t. He was just really, really great (laughs). Perhaps because I thought something other-worldly was going to happen. I think, unfortunately, because of all the hype, I had expected something that Liszt and Paganini, together, couldn’t have given me.

Now, the third recital that I heard of Horowitz, now that was scary good. I really thought that the Devil’s hand was in there. But I guess in ’65, I was expecting something unreal at the time, and what I got was perhaps something merely miraculous (laughs).

EH: Outside of music, is there an artist or an art-form that has captured your imagination ?

Ohlsson: The one time I had an experience as powerful as great music, was once at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They were doing one of these Impressionist exhibitions and there was one of Monet’s Water Lilies. I stood there and had this feeling of completeness, a feeling of something that transcended me and the moment. That was probably the most powerful moment I’ve ever had with a painting.

EH: Do you believe that the future of classical music is secure ?

Ohlsson: I believe that it is. I think there will always be people who want what this is. The people who normally want this kind of experience are usually very intense, very demanding, and usually very educated. I think humans have always gone through cultural shifts; ours just goes much quicker because of the technology today. When I want to hear a certain piece or an interpretation of it, I go straight to Youtube (laughs).

EH: In your opinion, what is the utmost purpose of Art and/or performance art ?

Ohlsson: Let me try (laughs). In terms of being a performer and going to performances, I want to be taken out of myself. And I hope that at my best, I can take someone out of themselves; in other words, that through my ministrations – either in a Mozart concerto or the Liszt Sonata, people can feel…

One of the greatest privileges that I have at being able to do what I do, is the fact that it brings me in contact with something greater than myself. It is something that is entirely not me. Beethoven writes a piece – it’s not me. But what was Beethoven in touch with ? What was Mozart in touch with ? It is ultimately a great mystery. In a sense, they were interpreters also, of this musical or artistic force that they were shaped by, and were shaping themselves. And of course, within the field of classical music, especially when you get to things like late-Beethoven, there is a lot of philosophical discussion as to the implication of music, the ethical, and even the spiritual meaning or cosmic content of it. I do think that when we are plugged into music, that we are involved in something cosmic. It’s like music is all around up there, and some people plug into it and bring it to us. So it’s kind of a transmission.

Alex Ross wrote in his latest book, Listen to This, which I recommend, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Classical music is an art form of vast dimension and violent extremes. It is loved most by quiet, timid people,’. The heroism of the Liszt Sonata or of the Appassionata is really not of real life. It’s the same thing as great Shakespeare, with these violent tragedies, and really, all art in all cultures. It tells us about ourselves.

When I’m playing Beethoven, or Liszt, or whomever, I get in touch with heroism, with sublimity, a demonism or a tenderness, that I have some idea about. It’s like an actor having to do a great role. You might discover that some of those qualities are in you a little bit. That’s the affinity, that’s what you have a feeling for. And I think that’s the greatest privilege for it. For me, the function of Art is to bring me in touch with that greater world. Great writers do it, great film makers can do it, etc. I mean, I like great music because it’s better than real life (laughs) – although real life is just fine, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a distillation, a sublimity or a happiness, a pleasure or a great sadness. It distills the essence.

EH: Mr. Ohlsson, we thank you for your time.

Ohlsson: Thank you. This was fun!