Pianist Garrick Ohlsson and Beethoven’s Concerto No 5

Garrick Ohlsson, one of the world’s most esteemed pianists, is in his element when performing Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 known as the “Emperor.” He loves the blue skies and optimism Beethoven projects as he pushes the boundaries outward to give the feeling of spaces with great vistas. He regards it as a grand piece containing the small dramas found in all concertos when the individual voice enters.
The “Emperor” opens with three chords by the orchestra before the piano comes in and plays the main theme. Beethoven is the first composer to announce the piano in this way. When the explosive power and range of the piano gets warlike, there is a brief tug of war between the piano and strings before the setting evaporates into a quiet, pastoral place.
“The sheer beauty and romanticism of the slow movement is dreamy with a spiritual and warm welcome,” Ohlsson said. “When the piano enters with the theme from the last movement, there is a joyous outburst and a tremendous moment of assertion.”
Ohlsson’s repertoire is wonderfully broad and eclectic, but he initially was thrust into the limelight by Chopin. Upon winning the 1970 International Piano Competition, he became regarded as an expert on the composer. Although he has recorded many albums and CDs of Chopin works, he has also devoted considerable time to Beethoven, performing the complete cycle of the composer’s piano sonatas at numerous venues and winning a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance of Volume 3. His prolific discography includes works by Bartok, Barber, Brahms, Busoni Prokofiev, Gershwin, Scriabin and other composers too numerous to mention.
Most music students get to know Chopin early, but Ohlsson did not like him as a teenager and preferred Liszt. It was only when he got to know Chopin’s music more intimately that he appreciated his wide range and decided to enter a major competition, always the first step in a solo career.
Ohlsson compared the nature of an artist to that of an actor in that some can do small, exquisite roles while others can perform a wide range. By immersing oneself in a single composer for a given period, a musician learns his language system, his frames of reference and his strategies for outbursts of lyricism. Ohlsson likens the process to moving chess pieces or armies.
He is not only a superb artist, but also a witty speaker with the gift of getting inside a composer. His intensive research of favorite composers has unearthed intriguing information that allows them to be better understood. When he speaks before an audience, he likes to present information about a composer that can interest a layman and often take him by surprise. But when he performs a work such as Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, he wants everyone to forget what they know about the piece and to be as open as possible. There is no right way to hear a work, he cautions. Just listen. Just appreciate.

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