In 1853 when the 19-year-old Johannes Brahms called on the most fêted musical couple in Germany, Robert and Clara Schumann, and played them some of his latest pieces, the pair were mightily impressed (and Clara perhaps a bit smitten). Schumann described him as a 'young eagle' and said the sonatas were like 'veiled symphonies'. We’re not sure if the two sonatas on this CD were among them—Brahms was a very self-critical composer and destroyed many of his early pieces—but the description is apt. They are huge in scope, and massively difficult to play.
None of the technical demands cause the smallest difficulty for American pianist Garrick Ohlsson. It’s now more than half a century since he won the Chopin Piano Competition, but the startlingly fast tempo of the beginning of the 2nd Sonata and the way he flings off the cascades of octaves could make you think you were listening to a 20-year-old.
But the dominant impression is of seasoned wisdom. Ohlsson’s tempos are measured, and never metronomically regular. He knows just how to reveal the lyrical warmth of the second melody in the sonata-form movements by pulling back the tempo a notch, but he does it so naturally it feels like a change of feeling rather a change of speed. And the numerous repeating sections are tellingly different the second time around, in a way that feels more like a subtle intensification than an overt attempt to be different.
Ohlsson has a wonderful feeling for Brahms’s very special sound-world, which runs from craggy monumental force to the soft-edged mystery that emerges here and there, especially in the beautiful middle section of the second of the two Rhapsodies. Here and there I could have wished for a more generously pedalled sound, as in the Scherzo of the 1st Sonata, which seemed a touch dry. But on the whole Ohlsson’s decisions about this and every other interpretative issue are spot on. He catches the cloudy grandeur of the music, without sacrificing the clarity that makes the grandeur comprehensible.