Recitals Crowded With Ghosts: Back-From-the-Dead Syndrome

A few evenings ago, after the end of a program at Alice Tully Hall celebrating the legendary keyboard virtuoso and composer Ferruccio Busoni, the pianist Garrick Ohlsson announced that he was going to do a famous encore by another virtuoso and composer who had played it so much that he had come to loathe it: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor. As I listened to Mr. Ohlsson play Rachmaninoff with a majestically persuasive gravitas that might have brought a smile even to the great stone face of the composer, I was reminded of why I cherish the piano recital above all other intimate musical formats.

Singers often say how naked they feel standing in front of an audience with nothing to rely on but the condition of their vocal chords. But in certain ways, pianists are more vulnerable. For one thing, they perform facing the keys, not the audience, and are thus unable to woo their listeners with waves of personal charm; their voice is heard only through the workings of a big black box, and a noble profile goes only so far. For another, even more than singers or violinists, pianists must contend with the back-from-the-dead syndrome: the hovering presence of all those ghostly giants whose way with Beethoven or Chopin has assumed the status of “definitive.” (A 30-year-old piano buff, speaking of a pianist who has been dead for 41 years, will say, “The Barcarole was very good, but you should have heard Cortot!”) And with no other musical partnership is the disparity between player and instrument so pronounced. In contrast to the violin, which is like a natural extension of the body, the piano is an alien, mechanical beast, and the taming of it, as many pianists will testify, can do you serious bodily harm.

Mr. Ohlsson is a pianist who has never met a piano he couldn’t tame. If his international career hasn’t quite fulfilled the promise he showed after winning the Chopin Competition in 1970, it has been Bunyanesque in its fearlessness. According to the program bio, he has played more than 80 piano concertos everywhere between Hong Kong and Jacksonville. In the second of a wonderfully off-beat series of recitals devoted to Busoni, the most formidable pianist at the turn of the last century and a Janus-like figure who straddled the peaks of Bach and Liszt while envisioning the music of the future, Mr. Ohlsson came close to blowing the man down.

In 1920, an Italian critic wrote that Busoni at the keyboard had “a quality [of tone] that was cold and almost inanimate. From this perfectly even basis he would start and build up a climax that reached the extreme limit of what is possible to a pianist, an avalanche of sound giving the impression of a red flame rising out of marble.” Mr. Ohlsson, a big, bearded man of sunny countenance, can make an avalanche of sound as impressive as there is today, but it comes out of genial showmanship, not white marble. His dynamics have three decibel levels: pianissimo, mezzo-piano and fortissimo, with little in between. Showmanship with a smile may be the only way to approach a weirdly glittering program of Busoni’s harmony-packed transcriptions of Bach and Liszt organ pieces and a selection of the composer’s own short pieces. These included the Sonatina Seconda (1912), which ventures with giddy courage into Arnold Schoenberg swampland, and the Elegy No. 4 (1907), a delightful attempt at Orientalism that employs the distinctly un-Oriental “Greensleeves” as its principal theme. Mr. Ohlsson’s homage to the sublimely wacky Busoni ends with a third program on March 23.

Two earlier recitals in Carnegie Hall demonstrated that there are virtuosos in our midst destined to become the ghosts of future generations. The first was the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who has launched a two-season series of concerts in Carnegie’s “Perspectives” series. Ms. Uchida has an aura that is uniquely hers. A slight, striking woman in flowing silks who is now in her 50’s, she projects exoticism, exactitude and earnestness all at once. Having made her name as a peerless interpreter of Mozart, she has recently turned her strobe-lit gaze on the Sch–‘s of Vienna, the city of her musical training: Schubert, Schumann and Schoenberg.

The last came first: Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces (Op. 11), of 1909, in which the father of atonality sought to enlarge his expressive range by severely compressing the flow of musical ideas. These once-radical little works, alternately dreamy and explosive, can still knock listeners off-balance. But Ms. Uchida’s forte is to create a kind of hypnotic continuity through the pressure of sheer feeling, and since she’s a performer in whom anxiety and serenity seem interdependent, she’s the ideal interpreter of this self-consciously moody revolutionary.

Her next piece, Schubert’s Sonata in G (D. 894), uses expansion rather than brevity to achieve its effects. Here, because of Ms. Uchida’s tendency to approach every phrase as though it were a moment of supreme importance, the beautiful forest sometimes got lost for the beautiful trees. In the second half of the program, which was devoted entirely to Schumann’s mighty Fantasy in C (Op. 17), she stretched her embrace to its limits. In this 30-minute work, the emotional range goes beyond the neurotic and the romantic to the titanic. Although Ms. Uchida’s grip was inescapable, I was again made aware of her need to italicize every statement, such that the work came off more as a sequence of majestic declamations than as the release of a fantastic, fevered imagination. At a time when music schools are turning out faceless prodigies, her brand of personal pianism is exhilarating. But can there be too much of a good thing?

A week later, I attended a recital that ranks with the half-dozen or so greatest piano performances of my experience, right up there with those of Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Maria Tipo, Maurizio Pollini, Radu Lupu and Martha Argerich. The pianist was the 32-year-old Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes, who has rapidly established himself as perhaps the standard-bearer of his generation. In appearance, Mr. Andsnes is as far from the romantic stereotype of the piano virtuoso as you can imagine: He eschews white tie and tails for a modish black suit and a buttoned-up shirt-no tie. His hair is the crewcut of the nice fellow down the road who might come over to help with a few chores; his manner suggests that he’s simply there to do what he does well.

He played an impeccably thought-out, similarly self-effacing program: pieces by his beloved Grieg, Debussy and the Japanese composer Akira Miyoshi sandwiched between two monumental works by Chopin. At every turn, I felt as though the music were speaking through Mr. Andsnes rather than being “told” to us. He’s an astonishing interlocutor with a technique that doesn’t call attention to itself, but easily supports his finely balanced sense of the work’s structure, colors, pulse and prevailing weather. Like Walter Gieseking, one of the old masters whose transparency and pearly elegance he brought to mind, Mr. Andsnes unleashes his full, considerable power only at the most telling moments. And like the greatest pianists, he’s not an international product, but an artist who carries with him the culture of his upbringing-in his case, that of a clean, sky-washed, seafaring community off the coast of Norway, where a sense of the larger universe goes hand in hand with quiet, daily industriousness. I felt all this most keenly during his playing of the Largo movement of his closing piece, Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor (Op. 58). Here, there were no giants of the past looking over his shoulder-only a thoughtful young man entirely at one with his piano, playing beautifully to Chopin, to himself and to us.