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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano sonata no. 1 in C major Op. 1 (1852-3) [28:38]
Piano sonata no. 2 in F sharp minor Op. 2 (1852) [24:55]
2 Rhapsodies Op. 79 (1879) [15:37]
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. November 2019, All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA68334 [69:11]

Garrick Ohlsson has been working his way through Brahms. After a fine recital of the Variations (review) and another of the late pieces, he has arrived at the early piano sonatas, written when the composer was nineteen. Here are the first two of the three Brahms wrote, his only piano sonatas. These are less popular than the later pieces and in them you can feel Brahms squaring up to Beethoven while also developing his own lyrical gift and love of variation form. They are, nonetheless, fine works. They were probably among the pieces the young Brahms played to Schumann, who helped to get them published.

The first sonata is notorious for beginning with a clear imitation of the opening of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata and following this with a reference to the Waldstein. Ohlsson has no lack of power for this. However, the massive opening quickly gives way to more lyrical material and I noted immediately Ohlsson’s tenderness and delicacy. His long experience with Chopin has paid off. The second movement is a set of variations on an old tune whose words Brahms had printed under the opening bars; they are given, with a translation, in the booklet. The scherzo is fast and furious with a good deal of writing in octaves, with a gentler trio, developed at some length. The finale is based on a variation of the first theme of the first movement with a number of Beethovenian sforzandos off the beat to keep us and the player on our toes.

The second sonata was actually written before the numbered first and is a good deal wilder. One would have said it was Lisztian, though it actually precedes Liszt’s sonata by a few years. Again we have strenuous octave writing while the second subject of the first movement has a yearning quality. As with the first sonata, the second movement is a set of variations which get increasingly complex, requiring three staves for their notation. The scherzo is wittier and less angry than that of the first sonata and has a splendidly swinging trio. The finale begins with a long introduction and then settles down into a rather Beethovenian melancholy theme which is developed with fierce canonic octave writing. This builds up into a towering climax followed by a coda featuring runs and trills.

As bonuses we have the two Rhapsodies Op. 79, works from many years later. The first is dominated by its initial idea, though there is a contrasting theme and a gentle middle section. The second is in sonata form with the opening theme split between the hands which keep crossing over each other. In the second subject the right hand has triplets while the left has a dotted rhythm which differs from them; these are precisely observed by Ohlsson.

Ohlsson is an excellent exponent of all this. He commands the weight and power for the massive climaxes and the more virtuosic passages while also having a fine lyrical sense. He follows the dynamic markings closely, dropping down in the many quiet passages. He is sparing with the pedal, following Brahms’s instructions closely and so offering us clean, clear playing. His phrasing and articulation are impeccable. The recording is up to the high standard Hyperion have shown in this Brahms series and the sleeve notes are excellent.

I should note that the competition in the sonatas is strong. Julius Katchen’s celebrated set from the 1960s still sounds amazingly good. He allows himself slightly more freedom than Ohlsson but occasionally I think his choice of tempi not so good: the finale of the first sonata, for example, seems much too fast. There is also a coupling of these two sonatas from Sviatoslav Richter, a Decca disc reissued by Presto, but Richter was in his seventies when he made it and this is young man’s music. Krystian Zimerman recorded all three sonatas in 1980, first issued on vinyl. This was very warmly received, but when it came to the CD issue Zimerman took against the transfer and would not allow it to be reprinted. For that reason, copies, when they surface, now command astronomical prices. Among recent recordings I like François-Frédéric Guy, whose playing is full of fantasy, bringing out the affinities with Schumann rather than Beethoven. But anyone buying this Ohlsson version should be well satisfied. I look forward to Ohlsson’s version of the third piano sonata.

Stephen Barber

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