Garrick OhlssonLeft – Garrick Ohlsson. Photo – Dario Acosta

Garrick Ohlsson plays Chopin as if he is in love with it. Like a good lover, he appreciates both the external structure and the internal magic of his subject. The second half of his recital in the Adelaide Town Hall last night was devoted entirely to Chopin, and in every piece one had the sense of a formal introduction to the piece, followed by a seduction into the mysteries each one contained.

He began with the F# major impromptu, a locus classicus of Schumann’s remark about Chopin – “guns buried in flowers”. The middle section, a post-revolutionary march in D major, is encased in music of melting lyricism. Ohlsson then gave a sequence of six études from Op 25. Both the G# minor one, the one in thirds, and the amazing cello elegy in C# minor which follows, were pure poetry, but behind this one was always conscious of the poised architecture of the works. Then he played the playful Gb étude, which is like a prototype for Scott Joplin, and the sequence culminated in the mighty octave study in B minor. The effect of this last was astonishing, the immense power of the outer sections and the burning lyricism of the middle section balancing each other, holding two impossibly extreme passages in miraculous equilibrium.

And he made each of the Chopin pieces he played become a whole world. The concert finished with the Berceuse, a piece where all the structure is in the left hand obstinate, and all the magic in the weaving, gossamer right hand part, followed by the C# minor scherzo, another guns-buried-in-flowers work. Ohlsson simply let the berceuse put the child to sleep, with the tenderest understatement of the entry of the second voice, or the moment when the ostinato at last changes and rests on the tonic. 

The first half of his program couldn’t have been more different. When Ohlsson’s gigantic figure strode onto the stage and sat down at the piano, he made it look like a toy. It reminded me of Schroder in the Peanuts cartoons. And sure enough, he played Beethoven – one of the most experimental of the sonatas – the Bb, op 22, after which, in the next three sonatas, Beethoven’s experiments in form made even him question whether they could be called sonatas at all. Ohlsson played the first movement very fast and excitingly, but he did not give the impression that Beethoven was experimenting all the time, in this piece and in many of his earlier works. I want to feel Beethoven asking “What ever am I going to do now?” more often. And the slow movement was played very beautifully, with an intense love of the Italian cantilena; but from the rhetorical point of view very straight, without any of the irony I feel from Beethoven’s quasi-parody of an Italian aria in that movement.

And then there was Prokoviev’s 6th sonata. The fantastic achievement of this performance was to keep the architecture of this vast canvas always in sight, despite the surface incoherence of so much of it. This is not music for the faint-hearted. Quite apart from its hair-raising difficulty, when I watched Ohlsson, such a giant, play it I expected to see the piano reduced to rubble at any moment. At two points he played it with his fist, as indeed directed to by the composer. In fact it did need some TLC from the piano tuner in the interval, but nothing more than that.

Ohlsson is an altogether astonishing pianist, with something unique to say. A great rarity in today’s world of glittering virtuosi. He played two encores. First, Rachmaninov’s first prelude in C# minor. Rachmaninov was also enormously tall, and I felt that there was some appropriateness in Ohlsson’s choice – and indeed he played it like a brother. Then he surprised us all by playing Claire de Lune, incredibly softly, and leaving us all surrounded by the shimmering moonlight of Debussy’s most popular piano piece.

2020 Adelaide Festival
Garrick Ohlsson
presented by Musica Viva

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall | 128 King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 2 March 2020


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