Brahms: Theme and Variations of the Second Movement of the String Sextet, Op. 18

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Theme and Variations of the second movement of the String Sextet, Op. 18; Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel; Variations on an original theme; Variations on a Hungarian Songs, Op. 21 No. 2; Variations on a theme by Schumann; Variations on a theme by Paganini
PERFORMER: Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67777

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‘A big man with a big repertoire’ is how a London reviewer once described Garrick Ohlsson, referring to his Bach-to-John-Adams musical range and matchingly large physique. But he is big in another, more elevated sense, a point proved by this superbly authoritative new collection of all six Brahms essays in theme-and-variations composition.

Long particularly associated with Chopin, Ohlsson has recently devoted recording energies to a Beethoven sonata cycle (its successive issues highly praised in these pages).

As he has also long demonstrated, though, he’s a born Brahmsian, equipped at the highest level with the necessary speed and power, the muscular strength and facility of finger tempered by breadth of outlook and solidity of intellect. (And of course, the most celebrated of his teachers was Claudio Arrau, king of 20th-century Brahms piano-playing.)

In the 1970s he recorded for EMI impressive, not wholly ‘finished’ versions of the two most famous variation sets, the Handel and both Paganini books. In the same masterpieces Ohlsson’s mature mastery – of Brahms’s ‘archaising’ splendour in the former and demand for every kind of pianistic virtuosity in the latter – is now comprehensively evident.

He’s no less broadly equipped to supply both the unassuming warmth and tenderness of touch needed for the underrated Original Theme set and the lighter-spirited sparkle of the early Hungarian Song; for my taste his espressivo phrase-shaping becomes laboured in the poignant Schumann final variations, but even here the sense of purpose is undeniable.

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One may cling to favourite individual versions of these works (as I shall to Kempff’s, Kovacevich’s and Serkin’s Handel, and Arrau’s and Michelangeli’s Paganinis), but Ohlsson’s new Brahms conspectus adds up to an altogether remarkable achievement. Max Loppert