After some peculiar programming last week, Tanglewood’s current weekend got off to a rousing start on Thursday night as Garrick Ohlsson gave a haunting, introspective, and idiosyncratic performance of Chopin. The program, emotion-packed and filled with delicacies as though the pianist could not bear to leave anything out, included nocturnes and mazurkas, Ballade No. 1, and Piano Sonata No. 3, as well as Variations brillantes in B-flat on a rondo from Hérold’s Ludovic.
Although Ohlsson has built a stellar career as a soloist and chamber player with a huge repertory of other composers, back in 1970 he became the first American pianist to win the International Frederic Chopin Competition. Chopin has remained salient in his mind and hands for over 40 years, so long that he invites comparison with the great virtuosi of our childhoods. Unlike the bravura performances of yesteryear, Ohllson’s are intimate ruminations and, far from showpieces, sound almost as though the pianist is still exploring the nuances of a piece by himself rather than performing them before an audience.
In this bicentenary year for the composer, Ohlsson is playing special concerts devoted to Chopin all over the country and appearing in an internationally-produced Chopin documentary. His concert, like the one preceding it, was packed—both inside Ozawa Hall and outside on the lawn. His playing commands extraordinary attention and rewards it. Every creak of a folding chair became an offense.
Lucky New York, Berkeley, Seattle, and La Jolla, where he will play Chopin in the fall.
Helen Epstein is the author of Music Talks in paper and on Kindle.