Brahms Complete Piano Variations
I cannot recall another single-issue release of all Brahms’s variations for solo piano. If not unique, it is certainly unusual. But while it is a godsend for completists and repertoire collectors, it is not, I think, intended to be listened to in the same way one would listen to a live piano recital. Moreover, not all the music is of equal interest (I could quite happily live without ever hearing the Schumann Variations again), and there is no doubt that the two best-known sets, the Handel and Paganini, are also the best music. Having said that, Garrick Ohlsson’s playing not only persuaded me to appreciate the two Op 21 works but actually to listen to both discs all the way through in a single sitting. He is that good.
Here is none of the turgid, bass-heavy portentousness that so often bedevils recordings of Brahms’s music. Ohlsson opens with the rarely heard variations based on the second movement of Brahms’s own String Sextet, Op 18. Following it is the gem of the collection, the Handel Variations. This is a great Brahms recording that elevates and illuminates the music with a lightness of touch and heart that eludes many (yet he can darken the tone when required, as in Var 13). He brings a Chopinesque expressiveness to the Variations on an Original Theme, truly teneramente (Var 1 and elsewhere), and a lively, articulated joie de vivre to its companion.
The Paganini Variations, played in the order in which Brahms published them and including the restatement of the theme at the start of Book 2, is not presented as a series of virtuoso études but given what is perhaps the most musical performance on disc in recent years. All this is aided not a little by the superb acoustic of the Wyastone Concert Hall. With Calum MacDonald’s excellent booklet-notes these are two discs for repeated listening, my only regret being the absence, albeit understandable, of separate track numbers for each variation.