Garrick Ohlsson and the Chopin Waltz in C# Minor

The Missing Quality Found—Garrick Ohlsson’s Chopin Waltz in C# minor

Russell Steinberg

August 23, 2014

Garrick Ohlsson’s Chopin Waltz in C# minor


What is this missing quality in most concert artists today that seemed in abundance from the 20th century “legends” I heard as a kid—Horowitz, Rubinstein, Segovia, and many others? It can’t be technique or musicianship. Our top artists today have undeniable command of both. But maybe it’s the sense of revelation I used to feel with those earlier artists, the secrets they revealed in each piece, the joy we the audience felt at their concerts combined with deep thought about the music they interpreted that lasted long after the concert. To this day, I recall Horowitz playing Schumann’s Arabeske, each repetition of the theme with such different color I could swear he wasn’t playing a piano, but an orchestra. As he shifted attention between the melody, the inner voices, and the bass, he revealed something deep inside Schumann’s world. Perhaps those legendary performers just had more time and inclination to think so deeply through each interpretation.


There are a handful of present-day artists that do the same. A few weeks ago I had that memory rekindled with pianist Garrick Ohlsson at the Aspen Music Festival. He was playing a work I never felt I needed to hear again, the Chopin Waltz in C# minor.  Ohlsson rekindled the feeling of first love, hearing this music in all its beauty for the very first time…

Hear Garrick Ohlsson perform the Chopin Waltz in C# Minor

Of course, nearly every student pianist hacks this piece to death. It’s wistful opening with its dotted Mazurka-rhythms is usually played too heavy, and the whirling contrasting melody invariably accelerates out of control. Then there is the problem of hearing both of these sections alternate one or two times too many.  But in Ohlsson’s interpretation, he makes those repetitions the piece’s strength.

Ohlsson begins the wistful opening slowly with exquisite tone and diminuendo in the melody. His other “trick” is to slightly retard when he gets softer, but then to quickly ease back to tempo in the following phrase. Unexpectedly, the whirling contrasting melody is not whirling at all. It is even more triste than the opening. At this slower tempo, we can actually enjoy the harmonies. When it repeats, he does increase speed, but at the same time he brings the tune to a pianissimo, so again the harmonies sound crystal clear. After the trio, he plays another trick with the whirling tune by accenting its bottom note, discovering for us an inner voice with its own beauty. The return of the wistful opening is now played with more rhythmic character and almost a bravura, again emphasizing inner voices.

But all of this—and I left out Ohlsson’s exquisite rubato and expression in the trio section— is but a setup for what comes next! The whirling tune returns in a way we have never heard it—with the oom-pah-pah of the bass played twice as loud as the upper tune. The effect is extraordinary, as if he lifted up the hood so we can hear Chopin’s engine in all its glory. One more repetition of this tune follows, and now that we have heard it’s engine, Ohlsson closes the hood, revs it up to double time, and finally unleashes the tune with acceleration we never expected. In retrospect, we realize that nothing he did was “affect” or personal indulgence—not the diminuendi, the rubato, or the ritards. All those devices served to uncover the hidden energies of this whirling tune. We hear it as if for the first time again, cleansed of all the dirt and indulgent grime accumulated from countless other pianists.

Anyway, his interpretation was so carefully crafted and executed, that it did rekindle the kind of excitement and contemplation I remembered hearing the older 20th century masters.  Would you agree?