Among British-originated Brahms piano cycles, Martin Jones (Nimbus, released 1992) and Barry Douglas (Chandos, 2012-16) have led the field, the former honest, thoughtful and musical if a little small and washy in tone, the latter bold with a fantastical edge. Like Douglas, Garrick Ohlsson is comfortably equal to the challenge, with a big-boned concept of the music and a willingness to open the piano throttle across the registers. No surprise there: these two are mega-competition winners of the past, Ohlsson taking the Warsaw Chopin in 1970, Douglas the Moscow Tchaikovsky in 1986. On their own terms both are commanding, and often thrilling. Engineering-wise, Douglas benefits from an imaginative sonic bloom but Ohlsson has the greater audio clarity albeit at the risk of a certain closeness and detachment, arguably focussing more on intellect than heart or space.
The early Opus 4 Scherzo (1851), a tricky, teasing number, sees Ohlsson in measured mood, clean and precise, steering a Beethovenian course, Brucknerian even had the symphonist in the man been around. Octaves are cast iron, chords are punched home, the articulation is orchestrally impelled, not a staccato or slur missed. Less relentless, inclined to capriciousness, Douglas, a touch brisker, in Katchen vein without the freneticism, finds a Mendelssohnian dimension, the quaver passages more limpid and scherzando than machined: elves at mischief in a German forest.
Douglas dreams the first of the Opus 117 Intermezzos, the closing E-flat cadence dying like a fenland sunset through rising mist. Ohlsson, lingering phrases and subterranean keyboard colours aside, is more prosaic. Ohlsson, slower, is the more sculpted in the Second; Douglas, faster and reverberant, builds a head of steam in the Third. In their different ways, these are comparably illuminating accounts – how one engages with their poetry and nuanced timings comes down to personal preference. Other pianists bring other things to the table.
Ohlsson is at his most compellingly scaled in the two big cycles, Opuses 116 and 118, now intimate, now clamorous, relishing the capacity, physical power and pedigree of his Steinway. Spontaneity and singing lines, voiced harmonies, full-throated projection, pensiveness, the stilled rumination of the slow movements of the Violin Concerto and Second Piano Concerto (an early tour de force of his and again more recently) make for a subtly stratified gallery of encounters. Something, though, like the F-major Romance, Opus 118/2, divides me. While Ohlsson dapples the D-major sunlight of the middle section with arabesques of beauty, Douglas it is who's the fireside bard of the outer sections.