Arts & Events

Garrick Ohlsson in an All-Brahms Recital

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday March 30, 2019 - 02:19:00 PM

I always enjoy hearing pianist Garrick Ohlsson, and it doesn’t matter much what music he plays. However, when it comes to piano music by Johannes Brahms I can’t say my enjoyment is anywhere near its peak. Not counting the two piano concertos, Brahms’ writing for piano almost invariably strikes me as learned, perhaps erudite, but rarely thrilling. This was the case in the all-Brahms recital performed, albeit quite brilliantly, by Garrick Ohlsson on Thursday, March 28 at Herbst Theatre.  

Ohlsson opened the program with the youthful Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor, Opus 2 by Brahms. For his first works to be published, Brahms chose the two piano sonatas, Opus 2, written when he was a few months short of 20 years old. In the F-sharp minor sonata, we encounter the work of an ambitious young composer trying his best to come on strong. This sonata is extremely dramatic from the outset, as Brahms hammers away with octaves and dense chords. Here is the Brahms who was dubbed “the young, heaven-storming Johannes.” He seems to be trying to outdo Beethoven at Beethoven’s own game. To me, however, it reeks of an academic attempt at emulation. One may credit Brahms for aiming high, but for me this youthful Brahms sonata never caught fire. No matter how much I admired Garrick Ohlsson’s technical virtuosity and rigorous musicianship, the writing itself never caught my imagination. 

Interestingly, what for me was the highlight of the concert was the second of Six Piano Pieces (Klavierstucke), Opus 118, composed by Brahms in his late years (1892-3). The Intermezzo in A Major was a simple, lilting lullaby. There was no effort here to show off erudition or arcane musical structures. Here Brahms relied solely on a lovely melody, and he brought it off beautifully. As did Garrick Ohlsson. The following Ballade in G minor, however, took us back to the thundering Brahms of his youthful compositions. Here, too, one had to admire Garrick Ohlsson’s masterful handling of stormy, difficult music; but I can’t say I found this piece enjoyable, much less thrilling. Likewise for the following three works that rounded out the Six Piano Pieces, Opus 118.  

After intermission, Garrick Ohlsson performed another late work, Three Intermezzi, Opus 117, composed in 1892. Brahms himself called these pieces “Lullabies of my pain.” The first Intermezzo is in fact a lullaby, but it is a strangely sad lullaby. It is as if this lullaby was written to put one to sleep in order to withdraw from life’s troubles! The second Intermezzo is austere, bleak, and wistful. This is autumnal music in every sense of the term. The third and final Intermezzo is almost a funeral march. In all, these Three Intermezzi, Opus 117, struck me as perfect music to accompany Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame (Fin de Partie). Although beautifully performed by Garrick Ohlsson, this is hardly endearing music, much less enthralling.  

The final work on the program was a youthful piece by Brahms, Variations and Fugue in B-flat Major on a Theme by Handel, Opus 24. Written in 1861 when the composer was 28 years old, this set of variations is, once again, erudite but hardly enthralling. Set beside the jaw-dropping intellectual rigor of Bach’s Goldberg Variations or of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, these Brahms Variations pale in comparison. They are academic in the extreme, and though mildly entertaining and requiring considerable technical virtuosity from the pianist – expertly performed here by Garrick Ohlsson -- they just don’t grip the listener.  

I must say, however, that the Herbst Theatre audience gave Garrick Ohlsson thunderous applause when he completed the fugue that concludes these Variations on a Theme by Handel. To me, Ohlsson was more impressive than Brahms. Oh, and by the way, the encore Ohlsson played was, thankfully, not by Brahms. It was Chopin’s beautiful Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2. Now this was enthralling music!