It would have been predictable and safe for talented American pianist Garrick Ohlsson to take on something that comes like second nature to him at his Kennedy Center recital Saturday night - like an all-Chopin program. After all, he was the winner of Warsaw's Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970.
Instead he took on a Horowitz-like program, with a slight variation. In this case, the opening classical sonatz was by Haydn, the "English," in C major. Then, instead of Horowitz' usual passionate Schumann, there was an example of the more cerebral Brahms, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. After the intermission came nine Scriabin etudes followed by the inevitable Chopin.
Ohlsson is potentially a major pianist in an early stage of development. The tall, lean, bearded young man is taking on the enormous challenge of the Brahms, a course most pianists avoid. His was not yet the ultimate, or even the penultimate, performance of this enormously complicated work.
Compare the jarring comparisons of temperament that Brahms demands. At one moment there is a sarabande that turns into a romp. The next variation is underplayed. Then there is a variation full of heroics, followed by a more ambivalent variation that even had a missed note, horror of horrors.
And lest you interpret this writing as negative, consider the finesse with which Ohlsson handled the Scriabin and the Chopin - the entire second half plus the encores. If he's not yet Horowitz, he might make it. And Lord knows how many others one might say that about. It was a fine evening.