News your connection to The Boston Globe

Pianist Ohlsson is in serious company

Joins impressive list by completing Beethoven cycle

Garrick Ohlsson is the most versatile of America's important pianists, and that has obscured recognition that he is the best of them. Ohlsson's career was launched when he won the Chopin Competition in 1970, and he has since recorded the complete works of Chopin and performed them as a cycle. But he has also won admiration for his Mozart and his advocacy of contemporary composers. And he's the man to call whenever someone is needed to perform a difficult or obscure concerto. His repeated success in the big bow-wow concertos by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff may have led some to dismiss him as somehow not quite a ``serious" artist.

For such listeners, seriousness is often defined by concentrating on the mainstream German repertoire from Bach to Schoenberg, especially Beethoven. This summer Ohlsson may have redefined his position by performing two complete cycles of the Beethoven sonatas, at Tanglewood and at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago, and by continuing to record the cycle; he's about halfway through the recordings now.

Playing the Beethoven cycle -- a total of 32 sonatas -- has been a test of artistic seriousness for pianists for a long time. Sir Charles Halle was the first to perform the complete cycle in public, in 1861, 34 years after Beethoven's death. It is impossible to know how many pianists have followed his example. Arthur Schnabel was the first to record the cycle, in the 1930s, on 78s, and that version remains a touchstone to this day. The floodgates opened after the invention of the LP in the early 1950s, when recording the cycle became a more practical possibility. At least 40 pianists I can think of have recorded the cycle since then.

In the last 25 years in Boston, Andrew Rangell has performed the cycle twice, and Seymour Lipkin and Hung-Kuan Chen did it once. The Hungarian pianist Balint Vazsonyi, later prominent as a conservative political commentator, did it, unsuccessfully, in a weekend. Russell Sherman recorded it in Boston, but has never performed the cycle in public.

Some of the most prestigious Beethoven pianists, including Rudolf Serkin and Sir Clifford Curzon, never performed or recorded the complete cycle.

The fact that so many others have done what Ohlsson recently did is not to minimize his achievement. To perform about 15 hours of music, much of it extremely difficult, from memory over the course of three weeks is in itself an impressive accomplishment.

But what really mattered was not stamina or security of memory (with just one tiny lapse in one of the easiest sonatas) but how he did it, musically. Ohlsson played with large and vital tone, sweep, imagination, and attention to detail.

Of today's pianists, he may be the most passionate fan of singers and singing, so the operatic recitatives and spinning lines Beethoven composed into this purely instrumental music emerged with idiomatic and bewitching quasi-vocal inflections.

He's also historically informed. Certain characteristic Beethoven effects such as the sfor zando, the strong accent on a sustained note that quickly dies away, were much easier to create on a piano of Beethoven's day than they are on a modern piano, but in the opening of the ``Pathetique" Sonata, Ohlsson found a way to do them. Beethoven was very interested in pedal effects; Ohlsson discovered convincing ways to translate the way they sound on old pianos.

The popular elements -- folk songs, the waltz, a country dance, even a tarantella -- emerged with verve and charm. Ohlsson's sense of humor was as robust and rollicking as Beethoven's own. People actually laughed where the composer meant them to, as in the finales of Op. 10, No. 2 and of Op. 79. Yet Ohlsson was in intellectual and physical command of all the most learned elements; the fugue in the ``Hammerklavier" was tremendous in tone and terrifying in tempo and emotional effect.

Most impressively, Ohlsson revealed that Beethoven never repeats himself, even when he is writing sonatas in the same key, or striving to communicate a comparable mood. In his hands, each of the sonatas had its own sound world, and surprise was constant. The emotional current almost invariably ran strong and true.

Only one or two performances in the seven recitals (of eight) that I heard seemed ``merely" well-played, and many were outstanding in every conceivable way. In this class belonged Op. 2, No. 2; Op. 26; Op. 27, No.1; Op. 54; the final two (Op. 110, Op. 111); and, of the nicknamed sonatas, the ``Pathetique," ``Pastoral," ``Appassionata," and ``Hammerklavier."

The most moving performance of all came where it should, at the end, in Op. 111, where the music basically takes leave of the keyboard and enters the world of pure, radiant spirit.

The recorded cycles of Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, Wilhelm Backhaus, Annie Fischer, Claudio Arrau, Alfred Brendel, Claude Frank, Stephen Kovacevic, Anton Kuerti, and Richard Goode are likely to remain of permanent historical interest; certainly Sherman's highly personal vision will continue to attract listeners.

Two more recent recorded cycles deserve salute. Craig Sheppard's (on Romeo Records) may be the first to be recorded live, and it has attracted a lot of favorable attention that led to his being engaged to give a recital in the Boston Conservatory's Master Pianists series next season. And the recent death of Joyce Hatto has drawn attention to her long-ignored cycle, which is intimate, meaningful, and transcendentally well-played.

At least two recorded Beethoven cycles are in progress in addition to Ohlsson's -- versions by Andras Schiff and Kun-Woo Paik -- but if Ohlsson maintains his own ever-advancing standards, his will be the contemporary version most worth having.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives