In this second of four Brahms recitals at 92nd Street Y, Garrick Ohlsson demonstrated complete technical mastery as well as deep musical understanding. Having the Opus 118 Pieces follow the Opus 2 Sonata provided an instructive contrast between the composer’s early foray into a genre previously dominated by Beethoven and the intimacies of his later years. The Sonata’s youthful outer movements are brimming with ideas. Ohlsson presented them convincingly, albeit in a somewhat stentorian fashion that lacked the subtleties and nuances that characterize the late works. His reading of the Andante’s Variations on a two-part Theme was affecting, as was the Scherzo’s Trio, which is much longer than its surrounds.
In the Opus 118 collection, Ohlsson sustained a dreamy atmosphere in the A-major Intermezzo and ornamented the lovely principal theme of the F-major Romanze with delicacy. Contrasting with these were the G-minor Ballade and the F-minor Intermezzo, in which the pianist created greater drama and agitation. He began and ended the concluding E-flat minor Intermezzo pensively, closing with an arpeggiated chord, kept sounding as new notes are added, seriatim.
Following intermission, Ohlsson turned to Opus 117, which Brahms called “three cradle-songs of my sorrows”. Ohlsson gently accented the First’s lullaby chimes, spun out the rippling figurations of the Second with consummate elegance, and brought out the much darker aura of the Third. Throughout, he managed transitions in understated fashion. The program concluded with the Handel Variations, which Ohlsson performed with power and agility, seamlessly shifting moods, from smooth to rollicking, from soft to thunderous, and from thought-provoking to witty. The monumental Fugue was a tour de force, its numerous voices kept in perfect balance as the music built to a climax. Ohlsson’s encore was the First Hungarian Dance in Brahms’s transcription.