Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
CD 1
Theme and Variations in D minor (1860) [9:58]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op.24 (1861) [26:48]
Variations on an Original Theme Op.21 No.1 (c.1855-7) [17:03]
Variations on a Hungarian Song Op.21 No.2 (1853) [7:26]
CD 2
Variations on a Theme by Schumann Op.9 (1854) [21:34]
Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op. 35 (1864) [24:14]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, 5-8 December 2009.
HYPERION CDA67777 [61:26 + 45:56]

There’s something about Brahms’ approach to variation form which puts him head and shoulders above most other composers. The ability to transform themes into a string of inventions which not only blows new life into the given material, but which also creates something entirely new, constantly surprising and often remarkable moving and poetic is not a gift granted to all. Almost all of Brahms’ music used variation in one kind or another, and the desire to fiddle with and tweak themes so that they never really appear twice in the same way is written into Brahms’ musical DNA. No big surprise then, that his variations for the piano form some of the greatest pieces in the entire literature for that instrument.

There are quite a few recordings of this repertoire around, but not that many which bring together the complete piano variations in one place short of buying a complete set of Brahms’ piano works. Of these, my home reference has been the very fine bargain early 1990s 6 CD set played by Martin Jones on Nimbus NI 1788. This is very nicely played, though has a rather distant and boxy piano balance to the recording – possibly a side effect of Nimbus’ ambisonic surround-sound techniques of the period. Also recommended for high musical rewards if mildly uneven recording quality is the 1960s set with Julius Katchen on Decca. I recently reviewed and very much enjoyed the set which includes the solo and piano duet variations with André de Groote and Luc Devos on the Belgian Talent label, and this comes closest in terms of programme content. For the full set of Brahms’ solo piano variations however, this Hyperion recording from Garrick Ohlsson pretty much blows away almost all of the competition in one fell swoop.

I’d already enjoyed Ohlsson’s Chopin playing, but this Brahms recording is in quite a league of its own. For a start, the recording is of demonstration quality. No doubt responding positively to Garrick Ohlsson’s massive dynamic range and weight of sound, the Hyperion team have managed to create an almost frighteningly realistic sonic picture, showing a piano with plenty of bass wallop and a staggering spectrum of colour. Ironically set in the same superb location of the Wyastone estate concert hall used for Martin Jones’ recordings, the difference in having a closer microphone position are immediately apparent. Complex textures reveal so much more detail, and dynamic contrasts and piano colour are much less affected by the response of the space. Excellent though the acoustic is, the focus with the Hyperion recording is very much on the strings of the piano, and I’ve rarely felt as much in touch with the impact of a players’ technical and musical mastery as here.

So yes, I will be taking this set along the next time I decide to spend money on HiFi instead of food and lodging. The playing itself is the reason I shall be keeping this set close to hand whenever I want my Brahms ‘variations fix’. Ohlsson won me over straight away, putting one of my favourites at the top of the bill rather than as a filler: the Theme and Variations in D minor, which many will know as the second movement from the String Sextet Op.18. Ohlsson sets out his stall in style with this piece, impressing with the fullness of the piano sound, carrying us along with refined rubati and plenty of delicacy to go along with all that majestic harmonic richness.

The great Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op.24 are up next, and I’ve never heard that first variation sound so much fun, bouncy and infectious, very much taking up the Brahms gauntlet thrown down from his age to that of his baroque compositional forebear. This release doesn’t go in for masses of access points, so we’re given the Aria and variations 1-25 on one track in this piece, the final Fugue given a separate access point. This is perhaps a little annoying for students, but as a listener for pleasure you are more likely to be enamoured of Ohlsson’s sensitivity to the relationship between variations than wanting to pick out individual numbers. The piece flows as an organic whole, little or no time wasted between variations which is as it should be – we are carried along on a wave of unstoppable creative flow. There are special moments, and I particularly like the dynamic shading in Variation IX where Ohlsson follows the fading chime of those sf octaves at the beginning of each phrase in the subsequent chorale-like chords. His lyricism in the more tender variations is also lovely, and there is no lack of expression whatever the technical demands of the score – including that demanding final Fugue, which is a tour-de-force in its own right.

Disc one concludes with the two Op.21 sets. The grand Variations on an Original Theme is another favourite, out of which Ohlsson bring out all of the poetic expressiveness, responding to Brahms’ inner voices and harmonic genius with vibrancy and a good deal of restraint. His touch in Variation V, a section laden with the markings molto dolce and molto espressivo, is a timeless joy. Ohlsson avoids cloying sentimentality at all times, but equally is meltingly beautiful. The stunning Variation IX generates symphonic excitement, and Ohlsson gives the following espressivo agitato an asymmetrical rhythmic eccentricity like a character piece by one of your French baroque keyboard masters like Couperin or Rameau. The second Op.21 piece is the Variations on a Hungarian Song is really based on rhythmic asymmetry, alternating 3/4 and 4/4 bars. Ohlsson has great fun with the quasi pizzicato bass in Variation VII, wrong-footing even the wrong-footedness of the musical material. He generates even more fun in the sequence continuing a build-up which reaches its mad climax in variation XIII, where he even allows himself a bit of an extra ‘czardas’ style cadenza just before the Allegro (Il doppio Movimento) section. If you’ve always felt this to be one of the lesser of Brahms’ piano variations you will at least discover here, like I did, that it holds some of the best fun to be had out of all of them.

CD 2 is short on duration, but as this is a ‘two for the price of one’ set there need be no complaints. Nor should there be with one of the best performances of the Variations on a Theme by Schumann Op.9 I can remember hearing for a long time, if ever. As Calum MacDonald points out in his fine booklet notes, this piece “mirrors the circumstances of its composition in proximity to the stricken Schumann household”, Brahms dedicating the work to Clara Schumann, left pregnant with her husband confined in the Bonn asylum for the insane. Garrick Ohlsson brings out this sense of desolation, relishing the flashes of defiant brilliance, but with those milestone reminders of turbulence constantly reminding us of the underlying sense of tragedy. The eloquence of Variation VIII is a masterstroke, and this entire performance is chock full of magic – the kind which is elusive, which makes you forget the wood-and-hammers machine which is making the noise, the kind we’re all really seeking in a good piano recording. If the utter simplicity and disarming beauty of Variation XIV, the timeless lyricism of Variation XV and the slow, unutterably dark depths of the final Variation XVI in this recording don’t bring a tear to your eye then unfortunately, in the dolorously dramatic words of an insufferable diva who shall remain nameless; ‘I uninvite you to my party.’

Having thus been cast down, we are brought back up again with the sheer showmanship of the Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op. 35. Garrick Ohlsson takes the opportunity to let his hair down in this piece, giving Brahms’ teamwork with that virtuoso violinist’s theme an extrovert outing. Ohlsson’s playing retains its sense of inner colour and variety even in variations which seem to want to make the wood of the instrument bend let along the strings, and at no point did I find him indifferent to the phrasing and layers of content in the music, even with all the pots and pans flying around and technical fireworks flying out of every moving part of my loudspeakers. This piece is by no means just a vehicle for virtuoso display, and Ohlsson takes us on Brahms’ explorations of the sonorities of the instrument like the best tour guide you ever had. Growling movement in the bass followed by music-box fragrance in the upper registers, and you’ll find yourself discovering this piece anew with this recording. There are plenty of ‘wow!’ moments, but one of the special delights is the little Variation XIII in Book I, which Ohlsson throws off like Chico Marx – you can just hear his fingers rattling over the keys as he slides down those runs: quite a feat, as they are in octaves. Bar piano style is also a feature of the delightful Variation IV, and there’s plenty of salon cheesiness in Variation XII in Book II, but this isn’t all down to Ohlsson – Brahms knew exactly what he was doing, and the entertainment factor is here at every level, high and low.

To conclude, if you want Brahms’ Variations for Solo Piano then you need look no further. Astounding sonics coupled with playing to die for, and this two disc set is worth every penny of its asking price. Be impressed, be moved – you won’t find a better Brahms piano recording this side of the decade.

Dominy Clements

Be impressed, be moved.