Yes, it has been 45 years since pianist Garrick Ohlsson won the International Frédéric Chopin Competition in Warsaw, but as his recital for the La Jolla Music Society on Thursday (January 14) revealed, his take on the beloved Polish composer remains fresh and invigorating. And the audience in La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium, a full house with extra rows set up on stage, knew what they had come to hear and basked approvingly in his generous offerings.
Ohlsson opened with an eloquent and immaculately detailed account of Beethoven’s A-flat Major Sonata, Op. 110, followed by his muscular, urgent take on Schubert’s grand C Major “Wanderer Fantasy.” But for the second half of his program, Ohlsson gave us nothing but Chopin, the arch-Romantic Pole in all of his effusive and tempestuous glory. It was quite a feast.
In the Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54, he suavely moved from Chopin’s brilliant opening flourishes to the pensive, minor mode theme of the middle section—Chopin was hard wired for ternary form—over which the performer lingered with delectable indulgence. His articulation of the Scherzo’s bright, chordal conclusion linked it to Schubert’s extroverted panache in his “Wanderer Fantasy.”
A pair of minor mode Études from Opus 25 also allowed Ohlsson to demonstrate his consummate skill in projecting the operatic scope of Chopin’s ardent melodies with one hand while the other entwined effusive decoration in exquisite balance. The sheer beauty of Ohlsson’s tone suffused the C Minor Nocturne, Op. 48, No.1, even as the work built to a dramatic conclusion of bracing octave flourishes.
Saving the best for the last, the G Minor Ballade, Op. 23, Ohlsson demonstrated how he could coax sublime and even passionate emotions out of the simplest musical ideas. The Ballade is structured as a kind of rondo, in which the repeated section becomes more complex as the work moves to its fiery conclusion, and Ohlsson took us through this rocky but thrilling terrain with aplomb.
His encore: more Chopin, the D-flat Major Nocturne, Op. 47, No. 2, which sent the Sherwood audience out into the chill night air with a benediction to warm the heart.