Gerhard Oppitz: Flying solo in Brahms

Friday July 20, 2012

Special to The Eagle

LENOX -- Accustomed to piloting himself to his concerts around Europe, Gerhard Oppitz is engaged in a solo flight of a different kind at Tanglewood.

The German pianist will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Sunday afternoon, but he has also embarked on a four-concert survey of Brahms’ complete music for solo piano. Unlike the cycle of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, it’s rarely done in the United States.

"There have been few pianists who have had the enthusiasm and the courage to play the entire solo cycle," he says, adding: "For me, it was always a fantastic chance to get to know more about Brahms and about his message about a world of emotions and thoughts, ideas. And I think also for listeners, for audiences, it’s a good chance to explore a very particular world of great art."

The four recitals, which mix early, middle and late works for variety, began Wednesday and Thursday. The series will conclude next Wednesday and Thursday, leaving Oppitz time in the Berkshires to pursue two of his other interests, gastronomy and outings in the woods.

Sunday’s BSO concert has an unusual twist of its own: a father-son conducting team.

Still recovering from a fall, the German Kurt Masur, 85, has relinquished half of the all-Mozart program to his son Ken-David, a second-year Tanglewood Music Center conducting student. The son will take "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" and the piano concerto. The father will retain the "Linz" Symphony (No. 36).

The 59-year-old Oppitz is licensed in Germany to fly any kind of jet, including Boeing and Airbus airliners, though for those he would need additional training. He travels about Europe in two models of Cessna Citation jets, often staying overnight in the cities where he plays and then flying home to Munich the next day.

He rents the planes, which cost about $20 million to buy -- beyond musicians’ pay, he says, especially for someone who favors the specialized world of composers’ cycles. He also plays Schubert, Beethoven and Grieg cycles.

Since tackling and recording the Brahms cycle in the late 1980s, Oppitz has gone on to play it about 30 times, mostly in Europe but also in Tokyo. This is his first go at it in the United States. For Tanglewood, it continues an Ozawa Hall series of major solo events that includes Garrick Ohlsson’s 2006 Beethoven cycle.

"For me personally," Oppitz said in carefully phrased English, "Brahms has always been an everlasting source of inspiration, and I am trying to share my experience with the audiences."

Brahms’ middle and late piano works -- mostly sets of variations, intermezzos, fantasies, rhapsodies and the like -- turn up regularly in recitals, sometimes in excerpts. Oppitz is also doing the three sonatas, early works that are not everyday fare.

Oppitz believes the sonatas were Brahms’ first experiments with symphonic form and Brahms left sonatas behind when he found fulfillment in his four symphonies.

"Whenever I play his sonatas," he said, "I have the impression that they are somehow like compressed symphonic scores." The short later pieces produced a more "contemplative, poetic, sometimes aphoristic way of writing music."

To better understand the sonatas, he has done orchestrations of them for study, though not performance.

Oppitz started on the piano at 5 and made his debut at 11. One of his teachers was Wilhelm Kempff, a leading exponent of the German piano tradition. Now a teacher himself, Oppitz has been on the postgraduate faculty at the Munich Academy of Music since 1981.

His immersion into Brahms also includes performances and recordings of the two piano concertos, the duo sonatas and the chamber music with piano. His partners in the duo sonatas have included cellist Heinrich Schiff and violinist Gil Shaham.

His last public performance of Brahms’ songs, he recalls, was with the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau about 20 years ago. A few weeks before the great baritone stopped singing in public, they did the cycle "Die Schöne Magalone" together several times.

"It was a very important experience for me," says Oppitz. "We had many, many plans to do more evenings together with different repertoire but then he didn’t think any longer about Lieder abende (song recitals). He only wanted to conduct."

The flying pianist made his Tanglewood debut in 2010, playing the third Beethoven concerto. During his free time here, he hopes to revisit some of the fine restaurants he discovered -- he mentions Cranwell and Bistro Zinc among them -- as well as walk and bicycle in the woods. The countryside here reminds him of the Bavarian Forest, near which he grew up.

The more than 20 years of playing the Brahms piano cycle has not produced any radical change in approach, Oppitz says. He sticks to Brahms’ ideas but plays "maybe with more freedom and more sense of poetry than I did when I was young."


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