On Sunday evening, the American pianist Garrick Ohlsson performed a recital of four of Beethoven’s most popular piano sonatas: the No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique,” the No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, “Moonlight,” the No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, “Waldstein,” and the No. 23 in F minor, Op 57, “Appassionata.”
Ohlsson, the winner of the 1970 Chopin International Piano competition, has parlayed that honor into a career as one of the most celebrated pianists of our time, exhibiting technical prowess combined with a depth of musicianship equaled by very few. While listening to his playing, it was difficult not to think about the playing of many young pianists nowadays who wow us with their technical prowess and fireworks. Ohlsson certainly has the chops, but he uses them not to impress but to make exquisite music. At 68, he is still a master at doing so.
His pianistic skills were on display Sunday evening as he performed an extraordinary recital of favorite Beethoven sonatas. Ohlsson demonstrated an almost uncanny ability to combine both power and control. He is a large man with large hands who, even though he sat low on the stool, still looked like he was sitting too high. His technique was flawless, with his fingers doing all the heavy lifting. At times (e.g., in the middle movement of the “Pathétique”) the melody played by the right hand rang like bells, with the left hand accompaniment almost imperceptible. He achieved the same effect in the first movement of the “Moonlight,” except that the emotion was much darker. His control was impeccable and evident most of the night, as a listener could distinctly hear lines played by both the right and left hands even when the score demanded furiously playing, as in the finale of the “Appassionata.” It was as if he planned each and every note of all four sonatas — and there are a lot of notes!
After the emotionally wrenching evening of Beethoven sonatas, the adoring audience wouldn’t let Ohlsson leave without an encore. After returning to the piano, he said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “This piece is not by Beethoven, and it’s too famous to announce.” He then performed Clair de Lune from the Suite bergamasque by Debussy, a piece that couldn’t have contrasted more with the Beethoven sonatas. This was the most ethereal version one could imagine. Ohlsson’s fingers were like raindrops on the keys. When he played the final, barely audible notes, he left his hands on the keys until the notes seemed to evaporate into the air. It was a calm and quiet end to an otherwise stirring evening of piano playing.
Postscript: When the program for this recital was announced with Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata, Ohlsson probably didn’t know that on Sunday and Monday nights we would witness a Supermoon in which the moon is closer to the earth than it has been in about 70 years. But he might have known that when he chose Clair de Lune for his encore. Either way, it was a fitting encore in so many ways.
—Henry Schlinger, Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming concerts, visit www.laphil.com.