When it comes to pianists, it’s often illuminating to trace pedagogical lineages. American pianist Garrick Ohlsson can trace his back to Franz Liszt, via one of Ohlsson’s teachers, the great Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau, and Arrau’s teacher, Liszt student Martin Krause.

Garrick Ohlsson. Photo © Dario Acosta

It’s a form of nobility. And nobility is exactly what came to mind on Sunday night when listening to Ohlsson’s first ever Australian piano recital for Musica Viva, presented in association with Perth Festival.

Nobility, and a richness of tone, which like Arrau’s could be described as orchestral, but deployed with such powerful rhetorical gestures that every paragraph seemed simultaneously carved from granite and spun from silk.

There was also humour, which came through especially in an electrifying performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No 6 in A Major, Opus 82, but was there throughout in Ohlsson’s deferential yet warm stage demeanour.

Deference lies at the heart of true nobility; it also makes the difference between a good interpreter and a great one. I especially appreciated the spontaneous generosity and quirkiness with which Ohlsson enlivened the two Chopin waltzes that served as encores.

And, despite the thrilling Prokofiev and the preceding hair-raisingly fearless rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 11 in B Flat major Opus 22, it was to Chopin’s music that the evening belonged. Understandable, perhaps, given Ohlsson’s legendary status as a Chopin interpreter. (Indeed, he owes his early fame to a Gold Medal win at the 1970 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.)

So, following the interval, Ohlsson beguiled us first with Chopin’s Impromptu No 2 in F Sharp Major, Opus 36; then numbers 5-10 of the Opus 25 Études; then the Berceuse, Opus 57; then the Scherzo in C Sharp Minor, Opus 39.

Each was a masterclass in what it means to be utterly fluent in a musical idiom. The Scherzo and Étude No 10 were especially fine, Ohlsson so beautifully holding in tension Chopin’s more explosive, technically challenging outbursts with the composer’s more lyrical utterances.

For me, however, the highlight was Chopin’s nocturne-like Étude No 7 in C Sharp minor, with its spotlight on the left hand and that magnificent arabesque that sweeps down to the piano’s darkest regions.

Here, every aspect of Ohlsson’s artistry was on display: nobility, yes; but in the exquisite phrasing and balance between voices something that was less poetry, more philosophy.

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