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Brahms’s Piano Variations – Garrick Ohlsson/Hyperion

Garrick Ohlsson

By Colin Anderson

Hyperion already has Garrick Ohlsson represented in its catalogue with the complete Chopin (literally so, for in addition to the solo piano music the box also includes the chamber music, songs and the piano-and-orchestra works, CDS44351/66). Two discs of Brahms’s Variations may seem less momentous than the sixteen required for Chopin’s oeuvre, but Ohlsson’s many musical insights and his magnificent technical skills make this a release demanding to be heard.

One could start with the Schumann Variations, its theme taken from Bunte Blätter (Schumann’s Opus 99), a soulful, stark and eruptive commentary on Brahms’s part reflecting Schumann’s confinement in an asylum and its effect on his household (wife Clara and several children) as well as Brahms’s own sadness and anger at the ruin of his close friend. Ohlsson stresses Brahms’s despair, the music sometimes offering beauty but little consolation. Contrast that with the warmth of the D minor Theme and Variations (a transcription Brahms made for Clara of the second movement of the B flat String Sextet, Opus 18), its Baroque countenance nobly sounded by Ohlsson who then elicits roulades of invention and compassion from its seemingly strict measures. The two Opus 21 sets of Variations, one on an Original Theme, the other on a Hungarian Song, are perhaps less well-known, yet each is full of dignified invention, and Ohlsson’s command and concentration bring each to life, the Hungarian arrangement somewhat outlandish, rather Beethovenian in its punch-drunk observations.

With the great Paganini and Handel Variations, Ohlsson is unstoppable; this is playing of devilish bravura setting in relief interpretations of disarming character and self-belief. The Paganini set, the Theme (from Caprice No.24 of course) – and played again at the start of Book II – is the creation of an alchemist, Brahms here finding his sorcerer counterpart in Ohlsson who opens the piano’s throttle to thrilling effect while still cruising as if in a limousine, unfailingly poised yet scintillating at speed and smoochy in lyricism, as required. To complete this notable release is a stunning account of the Handel Variations, crisp, nimble, full of imagination; a performance to bring a smile to the face and send admiring glances to a pianist who melds muscle with humour (whimsy at times) – rarely have to the Variations themselves seemed so individually delineated yet so belonging one to another, the Fugue a powerful envoi pealing to victory; a fabulous accomplishment on Ohlsson's part that like everything here seems seamless in its execution.

Such terrific music-making would shine through even on the most crackle-ridden shellac. As it is the piano is airily recorded yet with great presence and a wide dynamic range, a bass of substance and a treble that avoids harshness, an imposing but not intimidating beast of an instrument and one also capable of delicacy and tenderness, all within the gift of Garrick Ohlsson, who has here set down some rather remarkable and richly expressed performances.