A YEAR WITH LISZT: Garrick Ohlsson

In 2010-'11, if you were a world-renowned and much-in-demand Chopin pianist, you were very busy touring the world playing all-Chopin recitals in celebration of the Chopin Bicentennial year. In 2011-'12, if you are a world-renowned and much-in-demand Liszt pianist, you are very busy touring the world playing all-Liszt recitals, in celebration of the Liszt Bicentennial.

photo: Paul Body
If you are Garrick Ohlsson, both of the above are true.

Mr. Ohlsson has survived a Chopin Year that took him from San Francisco to Warsaw, with many stops in between, playing the eloquent yet muscular Chopin for which he's been known and loved ever since he won the International Chopin Competition in 1970. 

Along the way, he committed to a full-on exploration of another great passion, the music of Liszt, in time to celebrate the bicentenary of Liszt’s birth just one year later. And in a year that has many pianists beating a path to Liszt, his particular journey into Lisztian territory is being hailed for the "passion and force of his interpretation, enhanced by his clear voicing of inner lines and the dramatic juxtaposition of contrasting elements" (The New York Times).

Ohlsson's Liszt recital, which he brings to the UW Presidents Piano Series, Seattle on Wednesday and the  Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis on Friday, is sort of a Best Of collection of the composer's most profound and remarkable piano works, with the magnificent B Minor Sonata at its center, a thoughtfully curated portrait of the many sides of Liszt, from the dramatic to the mystical to the athletically virtuosic. We talked about channeling Liszt, memorizing Hamlet, and  about how, sometimes, size matters:

Lara Downes: How has it been for you to transition from a tremendous Chopin Year into the Liszt Year, with these consecutive composer immersions? 
Garrick Ohlsson: I should ask my younger self to answer that question. I think I would have found the transition very difficult when I was 25, because I think it took me longer to put myself into the world of Chopin or Liszt or Beethoven, or whoever I was playing at any given time. Somehow I feel that these transitions are easier now because I have a lifetime of experience, I know these people so much better now, and I know myself better, so I can just open the door and walk in. It's like taking on a different role for an actor, stepping into a character that you know very well. You know, with this actor analogy: whenever I play, invariably someone comes to me at the reception and says "I can't believe you played that whole thing by memory!", and what I always want to say is "What you should really be impressed about is that I can play it at all!" Because playing it is way more difficult than memorizing it. I think that really what we do is like what an actor does. When I play the Liszt Sonata, it's like an actor playing Hamlet. You get so thoroughly immersed in it. And any actor worth his salt has had to consider how to say all those phrases, where to rush forward, where to pause, where and how to interact with the other characters, how to make the audience feel the character. He's not stopping to think about the words themselves very much at all. You wouldn't say to a great Hamlet "My, you memorized all those words!" That just becomes the least of it. And also, both acting and piano playing - but especially piano playing - are so physically difficult that by the time it comes to playing a piece, I will have practiced those passages hundreds if not thousands of times, so they're just in me. It's about the meaning of the thing, not  anymore about the individual notes.
LD: I've been thinking about Method acting, as it might relate to the process of connecting with a composer. When you're immersed in the work of a single composer as you have been, do you think you assume or channel his character in that sense?
GO: Well, yes and no, I think spiritually yes. I don't use any direct parallels with Method acting, but I think certainly for me music is one language and – as an example, there are pianos and fortes, and there are crescendos and accelerandos in all composers' music, and the forte-piano relationship in Bartok may not be same style as in Mozart but it's still a relationship. So when I'm studying Bartok or Mozart, or Liszt or whoever, my first concern when I'm sitting at the piano with the music is not to think about, you know, "the great personality of the overwhelming Liszt." It's basically just: 'What’s there?'". Of course we can't escape our associations with the characters of these composers - and in my case a lifetime of playing them all - so that does come roaring in, you do get immersed with the spirit of the composer, there is an emotional connection with the heart and soul and brain of the composer. So, yes, I think we are partially channeling the composer, but I wouldn't dare to swear that I'm a medium who is channeling the great Liszt, because he might come back down after 140 years and say that I've gotten it all wrong! I like that question though, it's something we don’t talk about much. I would say that Liszt is one of the two composers who makes me feel that he’s actually moving me, pushing me – Scriabin's the other one. There's an extra power in Liszt that sort of defeats your rationality in the very best sense. He's so 19th century, so hyper-emotional, so grandiloquent, so Romantic with a capital R... If you keep your emotional distance, if you stay prim and proper, you're just not doing it. You're neglecting the id or whatever - you just have to give yourself over to that intensity. 
LD: Your Liszt program is such a wonderful portrait of the many very different emotional aspects of Liszt the composer. Is there any one side of him with which you identify the most, or is your relationship with his music based more on embracing the entire spectrum of his qualities?
GO: Oh, I love the whole spectrum. I guess that the part of the spectrum I'm least interested is the tawdry virtuosity, the bells and whistles, the  bangles, the tremolos, the shakes and shivers, the runs... Sometimes those passages are absolutely gorgeous of course, but sometimes, especially with younger pianists, it's just sort of excess of athleticism. You know there are really only two terribly difficult octave  passages in  the Liszt Sonata, but if you read any review of the Liszt Sonata played by any young pianist, it's always "Mr. or Ms. So-and-So played the most prestissimo octaves." The Liszt Sonata is not about octaves, let me tell you. It's about  heaven and hell, and love and life and death, the deepest emotions - it's not about how fast you can play the piano.  But nevertheless it happens to be a physically difficult piece. So when I program Liszt, I tend not to program those sheerly virtuosic pieces. Of course there is always a virtuosity, evident or hidden. For example the Feux Follets is an incredibly delicate, wispy, charming piece, but  it's also hideously difficult - much more difficult than it sounds! But I Iike the deeply emotional, serious part of Liszt, like the great Sonata, the operatic emotions. When I play the Sonata it feels like a 19th century opera, the closest I can come to a Wagner opera.  It has that kind of pacing and range of character. My teacher Joseph Bloch at Juilliard used to say “The trouble with Liszt is that there's hardly any piece of his, no matter how great, that doesn’t have a few bars of questionable taste in it - but there's hardly any piece of his, no matter how tawdry, that doesn’t have a few bars of genius in it.” Of course what's amazing about the 19th century is the tremendous variety of musicians, and I can imagine someone like my friend Chopin, or his friend Mendelssohn, saying “Wow, this Liszt is really something, but he's a little over the top” and Liszt would say “I sure am!”
LD: Right, and I wonder how much of that showmanship was coming from an internal place, and how much was imposed on him by the reputation he had to maintain as the great celebrity virtuoso.
GO: Well, I think it was both. I think Liszt was one of those characters who just was  more over the top, in both his music and his life. When he was asked about writing his autobiography, he said "It is enough just to have lived this life." He had one of the most extraordinary lives in the whole history of the world. He really was both a diabolical and an angelic character. He was one of those virtuosos who was thought to be superhuman because he could do things that no normal person could do, and at the same time he was a great composer, a generous propagator of new music, he taught  hundreds of students for free, he gave away so generously, he was Wagner’s father in law, he took priestly orders, and on the other side of course there were all the women, and rumors of all these illegitimate children, which may have been exaggerated somewhat...  He had an oceanic personality.  I mean Chopin was incredibly great and deep, but he wasn't oceanic the way Liszt was. People have different personalities – some are small ponds, some are Pacific oceans. I really feel in Liszt very much the  forces of nature – the tides, the tectonic shifts, all very aligned to the natural world somehow. And in a more musicianly way, I love the progressiveness of his music throughout his whole life. That's what I try to show. That's why I picked, of all his transcriptions, the transcription of the Bach Fantasy and Fugue. It's this marvelous example of the young Bach, roaring away on the organ in the Flemish chromatic style, and you can just tell that this wild Bach chromaticism was something that Liszt really latched onto. It's a great example of the Liszt who is a total showman, yet when he transcribes a piece of Bach, it's pure. He doesn't add any bells and whistles, it's just purely in the service of music. So I guess I've prejudiced this program towards more serious pieces, like the Funerailles, which is this sort of proto-Mahler piece, and then the Mephisto Waltz, which is just one superb, fabulous piece. And then I'm playing the Jeux d'Eau, which Ravel called "The father of all musical fountains". It just shows how far-ranging and stylistically broad Liszt was.
LD: Obviously, to do all this, and to do it the way you do, your physicality, and the size of your hand, is a wonderful advantage. Do you have a daily appreciation of that reality?
GO: Definitely – I can't deny it. I have good hands, I'm large, I have extra reserves of strength and stamina. Probably some things come easier to me. So Liszt doesn’t push me as far as others, even though he pushes everyone hard. Liszt is not easy. But I think part of the reason that Liszt isn't easy is that it's not just the physical speed and power, but the emotional extreme as well. He requires you to go over the top, and sometimes you  get overthrown and lose physical control as result. Sometimes you just get overwhelmed - the piano is making so much sound, and it just gets to be so much. But yes, I have nice large hands, and they're strong and flexible, as I gather Mr. Liszt's hands were too, and so that is an advantage. Probably to the naked eye, when I'm playing Liszt it might not look any different than if I'm playing anything else, just a little more active. Of course I'm busy enough doing everything I can, so I guess I can use all the economy I can muster. Piano playing is difficult!
LD: Have you ever encountered repertoire in which your large hand is a challenge rather than an advantage?
GO: No, not really. I'm fortunate in that I don't have the problem that the great Rudolf Serkin had. He had what we call sausage fingers - so thick that they could actually get stuck between the black keys. My hands are large and solid, but they are flexible. I think that when I was young and I had to play discreet music, without any clash-bang tonal palette, especially Mozart, I had to learn to reign myself in when I was in my twenties. But with all the fabulous training I had, and a lot of work, I did accomplish that. Because really you can't play Chopin very well unless you are a master of lightness, so I guess that went OK! You know, the question of physicality at the piano is so personal. We all have our strengths, we're all built for different things, which is wonderful in itself.

The On the Bench Questionnaire (with apologies to Proust and Vanity Fair)

What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to practice?
I try to do whatever I need to do so that I'm sure that the end of the piece will sound really good. You always need a strong ending!
What's the last thing you do before you go onstage? 
I check "Flies and Ties".  And then I just stand there and breathe in and breathe out. If you breathe out you will breathe in.  Then I do the same when I sit down at the piano. When I begin always I always breathe out.
If you could travel in time to hear one piano recital, which would it be?
Any Chopin concert – he is the greatest mystery to me, as a pianist. I think we’d be shocked either at how radical he was or how conservative. But he enchanted everyone who heard him, absolutely everyone.
If you didn't play the piano, what would you do?  
That's another question for my younger self - it's not something I think about anymore. But maybe astronomy, although that's not so reasonable, is it? But I guess playing the piano is not so reasonable either.
Meany Hall, University of Washington Seattle, Wednesday March 7, 8pm. Tickets
Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis, Friday, March 9, 8pm. Tickets

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