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Garrick Ohlsson: In Pursuit Of A Warhorse

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has finally recorded the notorious "Rach 3," Sergei Rachmaninov's extremely tricky Piano Concerto No. 3.
Wojciech Grzedzinski
Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has finally recorded the notorious "Rach 3," Sergei Rachmaninov's extremely tricky Piano Concerto No. 3.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson launched his career in 1970, when he became the first American to win the International Chopin Competition. Since then, he's performed and recorded an exceptionally wide range of piano literature — Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and much more. But there's one romantic warhorse he's avoided in the recording studio until now: Rachmaninov's flashy and notoriously finger-twisting Piano Concerto No. 3.

All my piano heroes share a common tradition — that showmanship can hinder the honest interpretation of a composer's intent. That dedication to pure music-making is what most characterizes Ohlsson.

At one time, it was fashionable to dismiss Rachmaninov as a second-rate composer who wore his heart on his sleeve, but this pianist shows that there's plenty of muscle in Rachmaninov's musical craft.

When Ohlsson walks onstage, at 6-feet-4, he's an imposing figure. He looks like he could crush the piano with one big chord, and he does have a massive technique that makes short order of Rachmaninov's famously difficult passages. But Ohlsson can move from thunder to silk with extraordinary ease.

This is music composed on a grand canvas; its opulent textures and rhapsodic melodies require exquisite interactions among pianist, conductor and orchestra. And the Atlanta Symphony, with conductor Robert Spano, joins Ohlsson in this deeply inspired collaboration.

Ohlsson's recording of the "Rach 3" has given me new interest in this very familiar piece. I can't stop myself from repeating movements, even skipping around to sections just to get another taste of their emotional impact. Rachmaninov's third piano concerto is a heroic work, certainly, and Garrick Ohlsson is the piano hero who has brought us one of its finest performances.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Manoff
Composer and author Tom Manoff has been the classical music critic for NPR's All Things Considered since 1985.