Garrick Ohlsson, Piano: Chopin, 24 Preludes

Ohlsson CD

I only listened to the preludes portion of this disc, so I will limit my review to those. Approximately 80 years later, Alfred Cortot's version of these miniature musical gems remains the standard (although they are assuredly not without their flaws). For me, this disc is further confirmation of the utter colorlessness and vapidness of modern piano playing. Though not as rhythmically and dynamically pallid or senselessly brusque as Pollini's and Argerich's versions, respectively, Ohlsson's playing brings crudity to a whole new level. Some reviewers have used adjectives such as "workman-like" to describe the playing on this disc. While I agree with that usage, it's a bit of an understatement. To me, "oafish" and "clunky" seem more apposite descriptors. The main problem is his utter disregard for pianistic balance and texture. Some more detailed comments:

No. 1: Where's the melody? This is the main point of the piece, both technically and musically. The passionate, palpitating figure, played by the thumb, should soar out above the accompanimental texture in the right hand. Ohlsson's phrasing is as timid as his sound is monotonal.

No. 2: Slow to the point of musical stasis. Also, there is a strange jerkiness in the appoggiatura in the righthand melody. Whatever way this is played, it should flow and not hiccup.

No. 3: At least his left hand is clear (unlike Pollini's rendition, which I remember as being a bit syrupy and smeared), but that's all he's focusing on. The right hand melody is practically nonexistent. Also, there's no grace or rythmic freedom, exacerbated by his rather desiccated soundthe pedal should probably at least be employed for  the opening quaver of each measure.

Nos. 4, 6, and 7: Musically constipated. Some of the most rhythmically monotonous playing I have heard, at least in recent memory. These are some of the least difficult technically of the set, yet they are seldom played in a interesting way, and these just could be some of the most boring renditions out there. Either he's scared to use rubato for fear of not knowing what to do with it or he doesn't possess a whit of imaginationI suspect a combination of both.

No. 5: Granted, this is one of the most technically demanding of the set, but he seems too focused on pumping the notes out to listen for the subtle rises and falls in dynamics that give the piece its structure. And the opening melody, so ethereal and springlike, is barely audible.  

No. 8: This, in my opinion the greatest of the preludes, has some of the same problems with balance as number 1, but at least he has a stronger sense of the piece's architecture, conveying some of the tempestuousness at the piece's climax. If only the small-note accompanimental figures weren't too loud and unclear.

No. 12: Skipping ahead a bit. This is crude even compared with some of the rest of them. Yes, it's marked forte at the outset, but dynamics are relatives and when he gets to the fortissimo on the second page, he has nowhere to go (a common problem, it seems, with many new-school pianists). Many interpretations may be possible, but I must say that of the ones I've heard, only Cortot's has thoroughly convinced me. Only the accent need be played forte, as does Cortot. If you piledrive both notes of the couplet, as does Ohlsson, it can't help but sound uncouth. Listening to Cortot's, I hear a midnight ride on horseback; Ohlsson's sounds more like a herd of stampeding elephants.

No. 16: The opening bars, marked with sforzato accents, are overemphasized. They should have point and bite but not sound like hammers pounding the keys into submission. When the presto con fuoco gets going, there is hardly any dynamic contrast and it is too loud and overly fussy (albeit dynamics are very difficult to focus on in this technically hairy prelude), except, ironically, in what many pianists find to be the most difficult passagethe modulatory fingerwork on the third page.

No. 19: At least the sound's not so crude (perhaps he is using some soft pedal here?), but he moons over the phrases a bit; they never soar or take flight.

No. 22: I've never heard such crude octave playing. Whereas they should be played from the wrist, it sounds like he's using his hand, his arm, maybe even the whole left lateral side of his body, to play them. Also, I hear some clunky and uneven-sounding rests and accents.

No. 24: "Dude, the left hand's an accompaniment!" The tempo, in this, perhaps the most dramatic and martial of the Chopin preludes, is overly careful, uneven (especially in sound), and loud, and again, the melody in the right hand does nothing. How could it when the left hand is so pounded? If you're going to play this with the necessary recklessness and abandon (e.g., Cortot and Richter), you're probably going to miss a few notes, and that's just fine by me.

In summation, it's assuredly contest-winning playing
reliable, accurate, obvious. Well he may have won the Chopin competition, but Ohlsson would have a lot of work to do to acquire the freedom and panache of yesteryear's pianists. I bemoan the fact that listeners often seem to like this sort of thing simply because it's the only thing they've been exposed to. Besides Cortot, there's so much else out there that's at least good: try, for example, complete sets of Sofronitzky and Jeanne-Marie Darré, or individual performances of Friedman, Cherkassky, or even Richter, and hear the difference. 

Joe's Grade: D+      © Joseph Renouf 2012-2016