With such glories as his complete Chopin (16 compact discs, 19 hours of music) and all of Brahms’s Variations behind him – both on the Hyperion label – and, from this reviewer’s personal perspective a Rachmaninov 3 from Detroit and then Busoni’s outsize Piano Concerto, Garrick Ohlsson is riding high, and he is positively equestrian in this studious release.
The twelve Studies of Debussy, divided into two Books of six, may begin as if in practise, but soon develop to find the composer at his most bountiful, wonderful pieces that may in each tackle a particular technical discipline but with many picturesque and fantastical opportunities to stimulate the listener’s imaginative responses.
Ohlsson plays every one with a revealing sense of how abstract creation can be searched for full expressive potential. He asks questions of Debussy’s music and receives answers. If the Études (1915) are not as immediately painterly as Debussy’s Préludes there is much here that is responsive, more than enough to explore all twelve and to want to go round again. Ohlsson makes the best music from these pieces, often with sensitivity and colour, and is not found wanting in the more agitated, grander or mercurial numbers; he has the lightest touch, Puck-like fingers and can be as emphatically fortissimo when required, such range captured comprehensively by the tangible recording made in the unencumbered Henry Wood Hall acoustic.
It seems that the deliberate difficulty of negotiating these Studies was intended as a warning by Debussy to pianists “not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands." Ohlsson of course is so blest. As he is for the four Etudes by Prokofiev (1909) and the three from Bartók (1918), each of the sets containing numbers that pound and are aggressive, and those which are edgy, virtually the whole of the Russian composer’s in fact, although he anticipates boogie-woogie in the last one. Of Bartók’s Etűdök, the first Study is explosive, the second requires quicksilver responses to entangle its dangerous complexities and the final one is reassuringly marked Rubato, although the end result seems anything but, and it is certainly resplendently advanced in musical thinking.
Everything here is fascinating and performed with masterly musicianship ... and method.