Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 26, 2022

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Orchestra, "Brahms/Garrick Ohlsson"

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
August 16, 18, 23 & 25, 2022 
by Michael J. Moran 

Garrick Ohlsson
Towering elder statesman of the piano Garrick Ohlsson is not one to shrink from a challenge.
So it was no surprise that in four two-hour concerts over nine days he performed the complete works for solo piano by Johannes Brahms in Tanglewood’s acoustically ideal Ozawa Hall. 

Although Brahms wrote solo piano music throughout his 40-year career, his works in that genre tended to get shorter over time, from his three early sonatas (1852-53) through five sets of variations on a theme (1854-63) to four late sets of miniatures (1892-93). But as Ohlsson, who was first drawn to Brahms at age nine, told the Berkshire Edge, he finds a “richness of texture” throughout these works, often achieved with “not that many notes.”   

By mixing these forms from all periods of Brahms’ life in each concert, Ohlsson highlighted their wide variety of tone, mood, and impact. The first program opened with eight short pieces, Opus 76, dating from his middle period (1871-78) and each called either “Capriccio” (livelier) or “Intermezzo” (quieter) but distinctly individual in character. This program was completed by two early sets of variations, Opus 21 (1856-57), all unfailingly inventive and often surprising, and the even earlier “Four Ballades,” Opus 10 (1854), each somewhat longer and more dramatic than those in Opus 76.   

All “Seven Fantasies,” Op. 116 (1892) in the third concert were also called Capriccio or Intermezzo, but they revealed paradoxically greater simplicity and emotional depth than those in the Opus 76 set. The sprawling five movements of the third piano sonata on this program had by now been distilled into the bare essence of Brahms’s great ear for melody and classical balance. These two concerts also included some of his most passionate music in the “Two Rhapsodies,” Opus 79 (1879) and his most technically demanding in the Paganini variations (1862-63), whose two “books” of twelve variations each were split between the programs. 

Ohlsson’s energy and concentration never flagged, and he played every piece with the same effortless virtuosity and interpretive insight, exuding a contagious sense of joy. Each program featured as an encore one of the first ten of his twenty-one Hungarian Dances for piano four-hands that Brahms arranged for solo piano, allowing Ohlsson to close each leg of his marathon on a high-spirited, crowd-pleasing note.