Portrait of a Genius | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Portrait of a Genius
Garrick Ohlsson returns to Lincoln Center's Great Performers series with classic piano sonatas of Beethoven.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson gave his first performance of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in 2005 at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland and repeated the cycle this past summer at both Ravinia and Tanglewood. In early 2007, New York will have the chance to hear him play a generous selection of the sonatas at Lincoln Center's Great Performers series (January 28, February 25, and April 1).

Playbill: For Great Performers, you have chosen some of the most popular Beethoven sonatas, as well as two that were singled out by Beethoven but which have never been big favorites of the general public: Op. 22 and Op. 78.

Garrick Ohlsson: When you think of it, selecting Beethoven sonatas, how can you go wrong? But, yes, Op. 22 has always been a particular favorite of mine. The first movement is so brilliant and boisterous and over-the-top, and the slow movement is a midsummer piece of aching beauty — it has this fallen-from-heaven state of grace that we associate with Mozart.

You know, one of the interesting things about studying the cycle of sonatas is that you see the interconnections between works so clearly. The concerto-like brilliance of the first movement of this sonata makes me think of the future "Waldstein," and the leisurely quality of the finale reminds me of the finale of Op. 7. It seems that Beethoven had a platonic model for certain kinds of movements, and he kept writing them again and again, getting closer to his ideal.

Playbill: What progression do you see in the sonatas in terms of keyboard style?

Ohlsson: In the earlier ones, sheer virtuosity is a more important element. They evoke Beethoven as performer — a keyboard tiger who had strength, agility, and finesse. Clarity and brilliance are essential. But as you progress through the sonatas, they become more about music as idea, feeling, concept. You could imagine a performance of the "Appassionata" that was a hash, but still succeeded in capturing the idea of the piece. The same would not be true of, say, Op. 2, No. 3.

Playbill: The 11 sonatas you've chosen include most of the ones so popular that they are known by nicknames — the "Waldstein," the "Appassionata," and so on.

Ohlsson: Yes, and I did that on purpose because the great thing about the famous pieces of the repertory is that they are famous because they are great! We tend to think of the "Moonlight" as, "Oh, yes, there's that thing…" But when you really confront these pieces in the context of the whole cycle, you are reminded that they are among the most powerful of the bunch. These sonatas take no prisoners! The "Moonlight" is an epochal piece of its kind — in the first movement, Beethoven virtually invents the Chopin nocturne. And then there's that romantic, stormy finale.

Playbill: The layman always finds the idea of memorizing music mysterious and forbidding, so I have to ask about the process of preparing the entire canon of Beethoven sonatas.

Ohlsson: May I get on my soapbox? Yes — whatever I play, people always say, "I can't believe you memorized all that." But, of course, it's much harder to play it! After the Tanglewood cycle, I was more tired than I've been in my entire life.

Look, we are English speakers, and could memorize, say, the role of Hamlet. Would memorizing the words make us Olivier? I don't think so! What a great actor does is make you feel the meaning of what Shakespeare wrote. That's what a musician has to do — he must absorb the work and its meaning: incorporate it. So, you have to (by the way!) practice these works, because the passages are so difficult, the balances so delicate. And usually, after the hundreds of hours it takes to learn a major work, you've memorized it.

Playbill: Because you have memorized the meaning that you've been seeking in the process?

Ohlsson: Yes.

Playbill: I understand that you will complete your recordings of the Beethoven cycle within a year and a half. Do you regard a recording as simply a preserved performance? Or, since it will survive as a document, is your approach to playing on a recording any different?

Ohlsson: Well, yes to both. Recording gives the chance to realize a more intensely detailed account of a work than a performance. In any performance, no matter how good, some detail gets lost, but we don't mind, because it's the large flow and drama that really count. In recording, though, I really put the screws to myself. I stretch my own limits, because I take all the experiences I've had with the individual work, with Beethoven and with performing altogether, and I try to distill them. It isn't just a matter of effort, though, but also of absolute time — a live performance takes exactly as long as the piece, whereas a recording of a single sonata might take eight hours of takes, listening, making judgments, and balancing possible choices.

Playbill: Since the original instrument movement, we have had to think more about how a piece might have sounded in Beethoven's time.

Ohlsson: Certainly, these concerns affect even those of us who play on modern instruments. Look, 50 years ago, merely considering Beethoven's metronome markings would have been considered eccentric! But we can't imagine that if we just do everything according to the book we will be right. More important than the notes themselves is what they are doing there with each other — how the piece is put together — the anatomy of it. Think of that passage towards the beginning of the "Appassionata," where the opening returns, but is suddenly interrupted by crashing, syncopated chords. The piece is about compositional elements that do violence to each other — about dramatic structure. It doesn't matter how smart you are, how well you play, what instrument you play on, or what tradition you come from — if that conflict is missing from the passage, if the passage doesn't shock, it isn't the "Appassionata," and it ain't gonna work!

Playbill: For these concerts, you include only one work apart from the sonatas — Liszt's transcription of the Fourth Symphony.

Ohlsson: I've always thought, "I've got to get around to playing one of these," and this series seemed like the perfect opportunity. After all, New York hears a lot of Beethoven, but even here, the Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies are seldom programmed.

I think these transcriptions were a noble undertaking on Liszt's part. In those days, there was less chance to hear symphonic music: no recordings, no radio, no TV. Liszt made this music available to pianists — at least to very good pianists!

Playbill: Is there anything more you'd like to say about how the body of Beethoven's piano sonatas in relation to his works as a whole?

Ohlsson: The piano was Beethoven's own instrument — it is the most intimate of instruments, and also the most complete of instruments. No wonder it served as Beethoven's workshop — the sonatas span all the periods of his development. If a man from Mars were dropped on the earth and the only Beethoven left was the piano sonatas, he could actually form a pretty complete idea of who Beethoven was. They present a full, accurate portrait.

Pianist, writer, and anthologist Joseph Smith is a columnist for Piano Today magazine.

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