Pianist Garrick Ohlsson

By Roger Emanuels

AN ALL-BRAHMS program by pianist Garrick Ohlsson provided an excellent opportunity for listeners to gain an in-depth understanding of this powerful music, and to peer into the mind of this great pianist. Combine the two and you get a musical experience that satisfies on many levels.

The September 30 concert was presented by the Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz. Ohlsson is currently on a two-year international tour with four programs of the complete piano music of Brahms. An additional perk to the music was the placement of two large video screens above the audience level, projecting an easier view of the keyboard and the pianist’s hands.

Opening the program with Eight Pieces of 1878, Ohlsson’s transparent performance carefully led the listener through the colorful harmonic progressions, clearly delineating cadences. Clarity of line was apparent throughout. We always know where the primary melody is. The clean articulation of this performance revealed how Ohlsson hears this music.

More youthful works from 1853-57 were the Variations on an Original Theme and Variations on a Hungarian Song, proving that Brahms, as well as many other composers, loved creating in this form. The challenge was to compose clever variations on a simple repeated theme. Ohlsson was less concerned with delineating the variations as he was with maintaining forward motion. The result was to thicken the texture with overuse of the sustaining pedal, blurring the harmonies, while creating a colorful palette of sound. The big chords with doubled octaves and thirds is a characteristic technique of Brahms, sounding orchestral in its complexity. The piano’s final bass chords were stunning.

The Four Ballades date from about the period as the preceding Variations, but return to a more intimate expression in Ohlsson’s hands. Brahms had just met Robert Schumann one year before composing them, and the imprint of Schumann’s influence was present in this very poetic performance. The pianist told stories in these pieces with every phrase expertly shaped.

Brahms was attracted to the 24th Caprice for solo violin by Paganini and composed variations based on that theme, publishing his response in two books of 14 variations each. Paganini had produced his Caprices as etudes, or studies, to build a virtuoso technique. Brahms considered his as etudes also, though with much less concern about virtuosity than technical mastery. The attractive tune and phrase structure was treated later by Rachmaninoff and other composers.

Ohlsson performed the Book One set of 14 variations, at ease with the increasingly challenging technical demands. The cimbalom (hammered dulcimer) sounds of Eastern Europe that appear in Variation 9 were subtle but heard as shimmering harmonies. Exceeding expectation in Variation 13 were the stunning one-handed octave glissandi that merely rippled with ease under Ohlsson’s right hand, concluding a compelling reading of this virtuoso score.

Garrick Ohlsson is a model of centered and focused concentration. His prodigious technique does not draw attention except to deliver the music to the ears of the listeners. His performance was all about Brahms and not about the performer.

The single encore was a quiet reading of Chopin’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor. Ohlsson’s introductory comments were not clearly heard, but seemed to indicate that the piece would illustrate elements that Brahms would later build upon, with expansive figurations. It was delicious dessert to a sumptuous banquet.