Son of a Swedish father and Italian mother, Garrick Ohlsson began piano lessons at the comparatively late age of eight with Thomas Lishman at Westchester Conservatory. At thirteen he began five years of study at the Juilliard School of Music’s preparatory department with Sascha Gorodnitzki, continuing to study with Gorodnitzki as a full time student at Juilliard as well as with Rosina Lhévinne, but the greatest influence came from Olga Barabini with whom he took private lessons. She had been a pupil of Claudio Arrau and Josef Hofmann.
Whilst still at the Juilliard School Ohlsson won the Busoni Piano Competition in Bolzano and the Montreal International Piano Competition, and became the first American to win the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw (second place went to Mitsuko Uchida). A tour of Poland followed (many more were to come) and offers flooded in. Ohlsson played with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, gave a solo recital in New York and played at the White House for President Nixon. In the early 1970s he toured Europe extensively, made a three-week tour of Japan and made his London orchestral debut playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30. During the 1970s he made a huge number of appearances, playing around ninety concerts a season. He reduced this, but has continued to play regularly in North America, Europe, the Far East and New Zealand. Today he is in great demand, particularly in America, where in one season he can appear with all of the major orchestras. He also performs in partnership with violinist Hilary Hahn and contralto Ewa Podles. During the 1997–1998 season Ohlsson performed complete cycles of Chopin’s works in London, Paris and Warsaw and in the mid-1990s gave the cycle in New York and many other American cities. In the summer of 2003 he appeared at many music festivals including Tanglewood, Ravinia, Riverbend, and Mostly Mozart.
Ohlsson is a large man with a large technique and although he plays a lot of Chopin due to his win in Warsaw, he has performed works by many other composers, his repertoire extending from Haydn and Mozart to Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and the present day. He has, however, taken it upon himself to learn, perform and record particular repertoire such as the Piano Concerto Op. 39 by Busoni, Debussy’s études, the four piano sonatas by Carl Maria von Weber, Tableaux for piano and orchestra by Henri Lazarof and Charles Wuorinen’s Piano Concerto No. 3 of which he gave the first performance in 1984. Ohlsson’s liking for contemporary repertoire has led to several works being written for him: in 2003 the American composer Michael Hersch was commissioned to write a piano concerto for Ohlsson and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra.
In 1994 Ohlsson was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize for his outstanding achievement and excellence in the field of music and four years later received the University Musical Society Distinguished Artist Award in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Ohlsson’s first recordings were made for EMI during the 1970s after his success in Warsaw. He recorded mainly works by Chopin including a very fine set of the scherzos, the complete polonaises, the complete préludes (which are a little inflexible), the Barcarolle Op. 60, Fantaisie in F minor Op. 49 and the piano concertos, which were recorded in Poland with the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra and Jerzy Maksymiuk. Other EMI discs include Brahms’s Handel and Paganini Variations, and a disc of Rachmaninov’s piano transcriptions which includes an excellent Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He also recorded a fine disc of Liszt which included the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude from the Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses, the three Liebesträume, and the Mephisto-Waltz No. 1 as well as both the piano concertos with Moshe Atzmon and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. In February 1989 Ohlsson recorded the Busoni Piano Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi for Telarc. At the time of its release in 1990 The Gramophone wrote, ‘One doubts whether the concerto has ever been played with such virtuosity, from the conductor and his players as well as the soloist.’ For the Arabesque label in America Ohlsson has recorded the complete works of Chopin. A recording of Charles Wuorinen’s Piano Concerto was made for Nonesuch in 1987 with the San Francisco Symphony and Herbert Blomstedt whilst Henri Lazarof’s Tableaux, after Kandinsky, was recorded for Delos with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Gerard Schwarz in 1990 and later reissued by Naxos.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).