BRAHMS Late Piano Works (Garrick Ohlsson)
Garrick Ohlsson begins his new disc of late Brahms with the mighty Op 116 pieces, and in a sense his readings seem like a throwback to a different time – one when bigger was better, when the full textures were there to be relished and displayed. Ohlsson of course has just the technique to do this, though I have to confess I prefer my Brahms to sound leaner. He relishes the sheer muscularity of the first and third pieces, for instance, but I wanted more intimacy in the middle section of the latter. No 4 is a little studied in effect – especially compared with Richard Goode, who is wonderfully nuanced here. And No 5, with its strange limping rhythm, doesn’t quite conjure the otherworldliness that some find (Angelich or Goode, for instance). In the sixth, Ohlsson conveys the requisite gravitas, yet turn to Angelich and there’s a greater flexibility and more interest in the inner voices. But he ends the set with conviction, giving the final Capriccio a bracing kind of desperation.
I’m trying to avoid bludgeoning all new recordings of Brahms’s Op 117 and 118 with the mighty example of Volodos, who for me reigns supreme; but, even leaving him aside for the moment, the lullabies that form Op 117, while absolutely acceptable here, don’t especially linger in the mind. The magical key-change in the first doesn’t quite set the hairs on the back of one’s neck atingle and the simplicity seems more studied than that of Charles Owen on his fine recent disc, while for depth of sonority and colouristic subtlety, Jonathan Plowright (particularly in the third) remains hard to beat, and Freire (Decca, A/17) brings a magnificent humanity to the second.
Op 118 is generally more convincing, the big beefy writing of No 1 suiting Ohlsson’s brand of drama, while the songful No 2, which is paced just right, proves that he can, when needs be, retreat to a true pianissimo. In No 4, though, others find more whimsy, not least Plowright and Volodos.
But Ohlsson leaves the best till last. The Op 4 Scherzo, written when Brahms was just 18, has a driving excitement, a febrile quality that is thrilling. And, with his easy brand of virtuosity, he sounds right at home here. Plowright is more inclined to play up the Scherzo’s Mendelssohnian moments, but of the two, the new account is, I’d say, the better. And Ohlsson is very naturally recorded too.