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Brahms: Piano Sonatas Nos 1 & 2; 2 Rhapsodies

Garrick Ohlsson (piano) (Hyperion)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Piano Sonatas Nos 1 & 2; 2 Rhapsodies, Op. 79
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Hyperion CDA68334   68:30 mins


When Brahms, aged 20, first visited Robert and Clara Schumann in Düsseldorf, he brought along a sheaf of piano pieces, which he proceeded to play. Clara Schumann later remembered: ‘Here is one who comes as if sent from God! He played us sonatas and scherzos of his own, all of them rich in fantasy, depth of feeling and mastery of form.’ Robert helped some of the works into print; approaching publication, Brahms asked his new mentor’s permission to dedicate Op. 2 to Clara.

Intense, rugged and according to Clara ‘very difficult’, these sonatas are forces to be reckoned with, Op. 1’s opening modelled on nothing less than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. If a performance can capture their youthful ebullience, ambition and energy, it is halfway there. The best, to my ears – Krystian Zimerman’s (recorded in 1980) – is not currently available on CD.

Garrick Ohlsson’s account, part of his on-going traversal of Brahms’s piano music, is full and faithful. He has a fine feeling for the music’s scope and scale which, if a tad monolithic in places, sounds just as ambitious as its composer intended. These accounts nevertheless feel a touch lacking in warmth and flexibility. Op. 2 ignites somewhat more than Op. 1, and the much later Rhapsodies Op. 79 are solid and full of conviction. Still, the whole performance, despite very decent sound quality, seems to call for more air, atmosphere and passion.


Jessica Duchen