IN: News & Features

Ohlsson To Reveal Brahms From Beginning to End


Over four Ozawa Hall concerts between August 16th and 25th, Garrick Ohlsson will be traversing the complete solo piano works of Brahms. Each of the four concerts will include examples from all periods of the composer’s life rather than unfolding chronologically. The breakdown and ticket information is HERE. BMint had a very pleasant conversation with the grand master

G.O.: I decided eight or nine years ago to do this project; I played program number one in New York, San Francisco, Montreal and London. And in the spring of 2019, I played program two. It was a way of organizing my own life and playing in beautiful, wonderful cities, but Covid intervened. Tanglewood originally expected this series to begin in 2020. Ultimately Tony Fogg asked me to do all four programs this summer at Tanglewood.

Last summer in Ravinia, I did almost all of it, but the recitals had to be shorter without intermission for sanitizing reasons, so I had to make each program 75 minutes long. So then this is kind of a culmination and this will be the first time I’ve played the four shows together from start to finish for the public.

FLE: You clearly decided to do each of these four concerts as complete representations of Brahms rather than four chronological surveys. Each recital has something of every period, but is there some organizing principle to the four?

I’m doing all the opuses that he approved for publication in his life not a total survey including all the minor WOO stuff, So, I did menu planning for each of the four. I considered what goes with what in terms of mood, emotion, texture, and feeling, while making sure each concert includes one big, virtuosic work.

Then you also have to realize that at Tanglewood, it’s quite likely that since many people will come to one recital, I want to give everybody sort of a taste of the range of Brahms.

And as we get to the late pieces, you’d get two whole recitals of very short, mostly very intimate works, which would not make such a great showcase in public. In classical music, entertainment isn’t the principal object, but it is a consideration.

Those who want to hear the 1812 Overture are not necessarily those who want to hear the Shostakovich 10th Symphony. 

One can write a very dull but learned review and nobody’s going to want to read it.

Exactly. And sometimes you can do something that’s learned within an entertaining context. Mozart did that very well of course,. So that’s really the reason I did it that way also, but not so much thinking of who comes to which recital, but I wanted each recital to present a unit of shape and size and forms; it’s very difficult actually. I could have even broken up the opuses into individual pieces and scattered them around like bouquets of flowers, but that would have gotten very complicated with Brahms. There’s usually a reason that pieces are in an opus together, though it’s not always clear if it’s just what he wanted to publish it one time.

But sometimes there are connections, like in the opus 76, which the opening group tomorrow night. illustrates. The first piece leads key wise to the second piece which doesn’t lead key wise into the third piece, but then the last three do. Sometimes he’s thinking of some sort of link and sometimes not.

He’s very much like Chopin that way because Chopin was very much of an improviser. And yet some of his Mazurkas and Nocturnes belong together in some of them are in the same opus and who knows why.

Brahms famously objected to bouquet type vocal recitals and that’s why he wrote the Magelone cycle which is very much through-composed rather than a bouquet of dissimilar things. But some of his smaller late works feel like garlands of faded flowers with one short piece following another. So, was he contradicting himself or did he only feel that way about vocal recitals?

Unfortunately, we can’t ask.

He apparently played these late numbers mostly in private gatherings for friends.

Who were mostly I gather extremely well-educated musically and sympathetic.

But that’s somewhat irrelevant, since all four concerts all have music from all of the periods. Are there any different characters or colors among the four?

I’m going to be my ambivalent self and say yes and no. They all sound like Brahms, don’t they? It’s really interesting in early Brahms, and this is a little geeky, but the op. 76 pieces which I start with come right from his prime mastery, but he was 21 when he wrote the next piece, the Variation in D Major on an Original Theme. You listen to the first four bars and that’s young Brahms already.  The rich contrapuntal and extremely rich and melodic texture not overcluttered with notes makes it unmistakably Brahms. That extraordinary sound that we have come to call Brahmsian came to him quite early…a soaring melody, built over a lot of counterpoints in a solid base…warm and comforting all and at once. That’s just part of the characteristic of his style.

I also wanted to have a lot of variations. For example, since there are some of blatantly brilliant, examples like the Paganini Variations. I wanted to have something like that in each recital that shows the virtuoso Brahms.

And the virtuoso you!

Well, of course, Well, that will be inevitable if you play all these pieces, right?

One of my prejudices ever since I was a student at Juilliard was how I hated it when people played both books together. Not because I hate the pieces. It’s just that that 12-bar theme is so symmetrical. Even in variations by Mr. Brahms, it wears. He doesn’t really play with the actual form of the structure of the theme at all. He just keeps writing incredibly brilliant variations.

So, after the 17th or 18th, one comes along, I’m a little sick of the format. I’ve heard great pianists play both books at once and I find it fatiguing. Yes, of course, public is very amused and amazed but still I think I think they’re much more charming and energizing as when they’re separated, so that’s what I did. And the Handel variations which conclude Program II are blatantly brilliant pianistically and in every other way.  In the last program, the pianistic virtuosity is carried by the first Sonata which has a lot of show off virtuosity in it, though that is not his principal thing.

Brahms was not principally a pianist who made the crowd roar like Liszt did.

Why is it that maybe with the exception of the third, that the Sonatas aren’t done nearly as often as the other piano works?

One of the reasons for doing all the Brahms in the recital is that he was so conscious leaving works in his corpus that were worthy.

Probably Bach and Haydn were conscious of that too, but Bach had to create a cantata every Sunday. He probably didn’t stop to think of whether number 197 or number or 82 was going to be the top of the charts. And Haydn was the same way with the symphonies as wonderful as they are. But you get the feeling in Beethoven that when he wrote the 9th, he really knew that he had put a capstone on the whole symphonic literature. Of course Brahms was very conscious of Beethoven and wanted to leave only good stuff. So he famously threw out 20 string quartets before even publishing one. He just didn’t want to leave any nonsense.

This is a long answer. Brahms didn’t want to give an opus number to anything that was unworthy. Even with that caveat, not every numbered piece rates an A-plus. That would be pretty hard even for genius like Brahms.

But among his solo piano works, nothing falls lower than the grade B category. The first two sonatas may fall slightly in the grade B category. Perhaps they’re not absolutely stunning as music, but they are worth studying for their inventiveness and also for understanding his capabilities when he was very young. But when he got to the Handel Variations, he was a composer who could not take a wrong step.

So the sonatas are fascinating works. They are also terribly difficult, but so is most of Brahms. But I think that when pianists look at the three sonatas, they think, well the third one really is a towering masterpiece of a kind and worthy of effort. That’s why I didn’t learn the first two until much later in my life.

A lot of the Brahms piano music is miniatures and it apparently sold. Simrock made a lot of money selling Brahms and basically published anything he offered them. But musicians at home, must have been much better than they are now to buy all that difficult music.

That’s a really good point. It’s hard to realize how much the world has changed because none of us were around back then. I’m in my early 70s, and I’m constantly wondering about the changes in the culture of life and music since I was a kid. And of course, it’s hard to put myself back in the 19th century. Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven made a lot of money from selling what we would call sheet music to consumers, who did actually make music at home. Unless they lived in a major metropolitan area, they couldn’t go to concerts very easily. Making music at home in Europe and indeed America then was much more of a thing. You did have a very educated public and as you say they must have been pretty good if they could buy a new piece by Brahms or Chopin and even begin to figure out how to play it; this is not stuff for kids.

But even from masters’ hands the smaller pieces could be considered salon music.

That actually makes complete sense, doesn’t it? Yeah. Yes, these small pieces are playable by a non-concert pianist. You can certainly get the feeling at home of playing some real Brahms either ins solo form or with some domestic partners.

But certainly those late works from 116 to the end were just absolutely the most divine stuff imaginable and op. 118 no. 2 is a work that I listen to, to summon up what’s right and wrong with any particular pianist. There are so many versions of it on YouTube. It is a great litmus test.

Absolutely…and very great music, though it can actually withstand a fair amount of different points of view. Over my life I’ve heard people play with completely different conceptions. Sometimes I think, oh no, this won’t work at all. But a phrase or two later I get it.

You’ve probably played it differently over the years. Do you play it more slowly now or do you speed up as you get older?

I often slow down because I enjoy things more. When you’re young, you love speed of course, but in general, I find myself a bit more moderate than I used to be when I was younger…a little less self-consciously expressive and agonizing over every, glorious interval. That was one of my first Brahms pieces, when I was about 17, and God was I very in love with it.

Brahms in 1853

Victor Rosenbaum told me that pianists should think of it as a minuet because Brahms liked Mozart’s so much, but does that make it perhaps too metric?

Victor is kind of on the mark. Some people play it very gooey, slow moving, and get stuck on all those little phrasings and subsidiary things. It’s not gooey. Nevertheless, we can’t play it dry in this sort of minuet fashion either. It exists in a range of emotional ambiguity, yet at the end of the opening and closing section, Brahms actually wants you to move along a little bit.

Clara Schumann complained that in playing four hands with Brahms, he didn’t keep to things in tempo… that he loved to linger on certain notes that he loved to take long breaths between certain phrases. They loved each other, but their styles were very different. His style was obviously more expansive and blatantly emotional, and she was always a little bit more law and order.

So maybe that worked when he was playing the right side of the piano and Clara kept things moving on the left.

I would really love to have heard such a stimulating combination especially since they were so close, and did love each other personally and musically, so much.

Hence the two against three of course.

Oh my goodness, that is practically compulsive in Brahms. And if there’s a possibility of polyrhythmic division, even over bars, he will make it.

If you look at the Chopin F Minor Ballade, when it gets really rolling towards about two-thirds the way through, he does this polyrhythm stuff. Brahms would have just gone wild, because he writes the left hand in four, and the right hand in 9/8 imposed over 12/8, with figures of four. And it’s also in Chopin, as it would have been in Brahms, the most emotionally culminating part of the phrase. Brahms just probably looked at that and said, “Oh my god, I wish I had done that.”

Brahms admired Chopin and owned a number of his manuscripts including, that Prelude op. 45 which modulates all over the place. Liszt introduced Chopin to Wagner in about 1848. Wagner became a Chopinaholic too, leading to Tristan and five hours of sliding chromaticism.

When the Gesamtausgabe, the complete editions were begun in the late 19th century in the German-speaking world, a lot of the editors wanted it to be a German-only club, but Brahms fought very hard for three foreigners: Couperin, Rameau, and Chopin, and he won. I could almost picture that fusty old professor Brahms saying, “Come on guys, don’t be so provincial.”

He wasn’t always fusty, of course. The young Brahms was an Adonis.

Oh, he was beautiful when he was young. He wasn’t fusty at all.

I love the account in George Henschel’s autobiography about skinny dipping with Brahms and what a beautiful body he had.

I love that. It’s just not the way, we tend to think anymore.

There’s still is plenty of youthful the fire in some of the later pieces. It’s so very complex, ancient, young, and human all at once.

Garrick Ohssohn opened Shalin Liu Center in 2010 (Snapshot from stage seat)

One of the problems in playing so much Brahms is that he is so complex…you can get caught in your head over it. He’s a big brain composer a bit like Bach. When you hear Brahms, with his polyrhythms and counterpoint, the listener instinctively knows that there’s a lot going on in there.  Whereas when you listen to Mozart, or indeed, my friend Chopin, or sometimes Schubert, you don’t realize how complex things are because it just wafts down from heaven. So with Brahms, there is this wonderful feeling of complexity and yet spontaneity and extreme delicacy and a great temperament.  

I’ve wondered how he really wanted his music played because it’s rumored that he actually liked a certain French string quartet playing his pieces better than any of the German or Austrian quartets.

But there’s nothing beery or sudsy about the piano music as some people characterize the symphonic music.

The piano music as you say always does make one think of the younger Brahms, even in those great late pieces with their absolutely exquisite delicacy of texture. There are moments especially in 116 through 119 when I’m really working well and hard that I think nothing more beautiful has been written for the piano since.

Do you ever shed a tear when you’re playing any of those pieces?

Often over many decades.

1 Comment »

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. FLE: Do you ever shed a tear when you’re playing any of those pieces?

    GO: Often over many decades.

    What a wonderful conversation, friends – thank you for this! Can’t wait until tomorrow night…

    Comment by nimitta — August 15, 2022 at 10:02 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.