This weekend, acclaimed American pianist Garrick Ohlsson joins the National Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Rossen Milanov making his NSO debut, at the Kennedy Center for three performances of Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C, Op. 39. ¶ The piece, premiered in 1904, is neo-Romantic and tuneful. It’s also fiendishly difficult for the soloist, lasts 70 minutes and brings on a men’s chorus in the last movement — all reasons it is seldom performed. Ohlsson, however, has played the piece a number of times and recorded it. Recently, he spoke by phone about his experiences with the concerto and what audiences can expect.
“My first piano teacher, Tom Lishman, was a grandpupil of Busoni. His teacher, Frieda van Dieren, was one of Busoni’s favorite pupils. . . . So I grew up with lore of Busoni, and actually being familiar with his music. I now realize that was an unusual position to be in.
“I stayed close to Lishman, and when I was 18 he took me to Carnegie when [George] Szell did the piece for the Busoni centenary. I was very impressed, because I had heard a lot about this piece, [but] there was no recording to be had. . . . As you know, if you see Busoni’s name on a program, you don’t know what musical language you’re going to encounter: most often Bach-Busoni [Busoni did a series of keyboard transcriptions of Bach’s works], but sometimes arch-Romantic, sometimes neo-classical, sometimes as atonal as Schoenberg. . . . [It turned out to be this] huge neo-Romantic thing, [very much] of its time, like [Schoenberg’s] ‘Gurrelieder.’ I thought the opening was beautiful, and I thought the pianist would never come in; it goes on for a while. When he did come in, I thought, this out-Tchaikovskys Tchaikovsky. When I was 18, I thought all that noise was a wonderful thing, which it is, but you’re more inclined [that way] when you’re younger.
“I frankly didn’t give it any more thought. It’s not the kind of piece people ask for.
“In 1984, I did have an invitation to play it from the guy running the Berlin Festwochen. He wanted to do it with the conductor Bernhard Klee, [and] Klee said, ‘Great, we’ll do it in Düsseldorf first.’ When it actually came to pass, the Berlin gig fell out, but Klee said, ‘Well, I like the piece; would you like to do in Düsseldorf anyway?’ I gulped and said yes. The first time through, I don’t know if I loved it. It’s massive and very difficult for the pianist.
“The next invitation to do it came from the Cleveland Orchestra with Christoph von Dohnanyi in Cleveland, and then in New York and Boston, and then a recording. . . . I was, needless to say, thrilled out of my mind. At Carnegie Hall in 1966, I never imagined that only 23 years later [I’d be appearing with the] same orchestra in the same piece.
“Every so often people are interested in this piece. I have an actual caveat to my agent. I’m happy to play it, but it’s so long that I need at least two engagements within six months of each other. It’s quite a lot to revise.
“I’m curious, if I played it 15 times in a season, [whether] it would go into my nervous system the way other standard piano concertos have. When you’ve played the Brahms 2nd Concerto and Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto 100 times . . . you know the hills and the valleys and the shapes, [and] many of the technical difficulties become more possible and more plausible. You kind of know in your unconscious how to do things.
“The celebrated virtuosity of the Busoni concerto is not actually greater than the Brahms 2nd, Rachmaninoff 3rd, Prokofiev 2nd and Bartok 2nd. I call them the Big Four. . . . I like the piece and I think it’s a wonderful work. I don’t propose it as the next Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony for the public. I don’t think it’s quite in that category. [But] I think it’s a noble and beautiful work.
“It’s divided into five movements, but there’s no intermission point. I think the most effective movement for the public is the fourth; the tarantella runs into a wall and starts up [again] a couple of times in a most effective way. If you could excerpt it and give it a different ending, it would be a great Concertstück [concert piece]. I think you’d have a 15-minute piece that would have them absolutely howling, because it’s totally exciting, not unlike the excitement of Respighi’s ‘Feste Romane’: everything but the kitchen sink in there. It’s really lively. Busoni was half Italian, half German, and really both by temperament and parentage. The first, third and fifth movements are very serious, more Germanic-style pillars of monumentality and seriousness, much more sobriety and dignity.
“There’s nothing in this piece that would frighten a modern audience at all, except perhaps its length.”
Appearing Nov. 20-22 with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Men’s
Camerata at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.
$10-$85. The program also includes Stravinsky’s “Firebird” suite.