BRAHMS: Piano Sonatas and Rhapsodies – Garrick Ohlsson, Piano – Hyperion

by | Jul 13, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, Op. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 2; Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79 – Garrick Ohlsson, piano – Hyperion CDA68334, 69:11 (2/7/21) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Brahms introduced himself to the family of Clara and Robert Schumann with a set of compositions, of which his first two piano sonatas (pub. 1853) formed the initial impression from Schumann, that the piano had become “an orchestra of lamenting and loudly jubilant voices.” Given the two composers’ mutual admiration for the music of Beethoven, it comes as little surprise that the grandiose opening of the Sonata No. 1 in C Major strongly resembles Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata in tone and dynamics and the “Waldstein” Sonata in harmonic strategy. Brahms demonstrates his youthful mastery of procedures in figures in syncopations, counterpoint, and transitions on the pedal on E, having moved to a secondary theme in A Minor, the development section revels in canons in thirds and a bass trill of seven notes. Brahms exploits the movement from B Minor to D Major with a lulling effect, the hands’ reversing the statement of themes. His coda abounds in sweeping triplet figures, against dotted rhythms; and this complex tissue moves to a syncopated-induced cadence and long bass notes that Brahms ends, largamente, in the style of a long-sought hymn. One can easily imagine the dazzled awe with which this homage to Beethoven gratified the Schumanns.

The two early sonatas share a motive in the second movements that Brahms claims derives from a Minnelied he found in an 1830s collection called German Folk-Songs with Their Original Melodies. The words of the C Major Sonata second movement speak of a moonrise over a blue flower that symbolizes fidelity, just the sentiment cherished by Robert Schumann in his grand C Major Fantasie. In C Minor, Andante, we have a theme, three brief, intimate variations, and a coda. The music plays out as a duet, a call and response, concluding on a low C pedal that serves to segue, attacca, to the scherzo, Allegro molto e con fuoco, in E Minor. Ohlsson projects muscular octaves, moving to G Major and a rhythmic kernel straight out of Beethoven’s Fifth. Before the required Trio section in C Major, Brahms asks for F Major arpeggio to be played strepitoso, a layered, resounding dynamic. The reprise of the scherzo tune thunders on the Beethoven Fifth motif, alternating D Minor and F Minor and “settling,” feroce in syncopated half steps, into that F Major gesture, once more strepitoso, that resolves into E Minor. 

For his grand finale, Brahms manipulates his opening motifs into Rondo format in C Major, asking Ohlsson to deliver two hand syncopations and large octave leaps in a “breath” of 14 measures. Brahms pays homage directly to Schumann, having adopted a tune from the Myrthen cycle and its use of a poem by Robert Burns. After having indulged a clearly nepotistic sentiment, Brahms returns to his gallop, often digressing into the E Minor scherzo recall. Brahms shifts to a compelling 6/8, Presto, con grand’espessione, that catapults us to close, another statement of the Rondo in a blaze of light. 

The F-sharp Minor Sonata, Op. 2 (1852; pub. 1854, with a dedication to Clara Schuman) pre-dates Op. 1, and its impulse proves less Classical and more openly Romantic. Quite virtuosic in technique, the work opens with another vigorous declamation, an angular statement in double-octave thirds for the hands. The Brahms bass line appears expressly potent, and a passionate melody arises in a chromatically colored E Major. The surges and emphatic force of the music already point to the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto. The triplets in full force assume an obsessive quality. Little wonder Schumann called these early sonatas “veiled symphonies.” Each idea in the course of the exposition generates the next idea, an impelled, organic structure not so distant from Liszt and his “transformation of theme.” The Brahms coda, in triplets, exacts a series of bell tones from Ohlsson, first syncopated then straightforward, descending to a low octave F#, that ends the movement in a pair of sharp and final chords, a low, soft pedal.

Portrait of Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms

As he had in Op. 1, Brahms in his Andante con espressione of Op. 2 utilizes another Miinelied, “Mir ist leide,” “I am pained,” as a source for a theme and four variations. Set in B Minor, the music is the composer’s own. The chromatic movement starts early, moving from D Major to G Minor. Off-beat notes mark the first variation, and Ohlsson imbues this duet effect quite ravishing as the music fills out. A four-note “fate” motif soon infiltrates the drama as we move forward, with interjections of meditation and turbulence. Where would Brahms be without his triplet motions? Brahms graduates his dynamics so that the last arpeggio of Variation 4 slows to a  triplet, tacking on a descent into a low, bass B Minor for the immediate – after a brief pause – to the Scherzo: Allegro. Brahms transfers his rhythm to 6/8, maintaining his “duet” approach, and adding a hunting effect. The extended Trio proceeds in three parts, a kind of carillon in D, both major and minor. The reprise has a mania about the ringing tones in trills, which the counter melody tries to soothe, to little avail. 

The true weight of this impassioned sonata has shifted to the last movement, Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro non troppo e rubato – Molto sostenuto, which strongly suggests what Brahms will do in both his Piano Quintet and First Symphony last movements. The declamatory, slow introduction plays with A Major as the relative of F-sharp Minor. Triplets, trills, and rising arpeggios will prepare for the main theme in the home key, with a brief, scalar cadenza. The theme permits moments of stillness that Brahms – and Ohlsson – exploits for dramatic effect. Obviously, in honor of Schumann and Bach, Brahms employs counterpoints in a rhythm that has gypsy elements from Brahms’s old days when he accompanied violinist Remenyi. Interesting, how much the left hand carries the melodic line in this movement. The development section of this sonata-form Allegro bears the chromatic earmarks of Schumann, rife with C-sharp, A-flat Minor, and G-sharp excursions. Ohlsson invests a toccata energy into this realization, with some flourishes, trills, and rolled chords at the conclusion that serve as a Schumann-like epilogue we know from his various piano suites, and a subtle, last nod to Clara Schumann, whom Brahms would love to his last days.

For this reviewer, the juxtaposition of the early sonatas with the pair of 1879 Rhapsodies brings back the first impressions, granted him by Artur Rubinstein, Walter Gieseking, and Julius Katchen. The B Minor Rhapsody gravitates between forceful assertion and melancholy consolation. Here, in late Brahms, the power of emotion must cede to the constraints of good form, although the use of structural repetition might bear, in the last pages, the grim weight of Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return.” Ohlsson does project a marvelous pianissimo (especially in the Trio) to counter the potent double fortes that punctuate the main theme’s development. For me, he plays the middle section a mite too quickly. The G Minor Rhapsody – which Rubinstein never recorded, pity – stands as an independent sonata-movement. Here, in late Brahms, the power of visceral emotion must cede to the constraints of good form. The interior line of this often assertive piece, a constant impulse of a minor second in rocking motion, possesses its own momentum. Some of the passing dissonances come quite close to Mussorgsky, although the Brahms “rainy-day” sentiment alleviates the anguish. Ohlsson gives this fine composition a wide berth and range for expressive power, avoiding many an interpreter’s error of undue haste. 

—Gary Lemco

Brahms Piano Sonatas and Rhapsodies, Garrick Ohlsson

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