Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Johannes Brahms: Variations (Paganini, Handel, Schumann)

It's hard to go wrong when it comes to great piano music with Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).  For excellent performance, it is hard to go wrong with the Turkish master Idil Biret.  And for a reasonably priced, high quality recording, it is hard to go wrong with the Naxos label.

Recorded in Heidelberg, Germany in November 1989, this disc has three sets of variations from great composers.  The ones from Handel, dating to 1861, are derived from that composer's first harpischord suite, from which fully twenty-five variations issue ending with a fugue.  But, while the baroque melodic theme sets the template, Brahms created the variations in his own style, beautiful and arresting with a measured expression of power and passion.
That from Schumann actually was composed when Brahms was in his early twenties and just after Schumann went insane, tried to kill himself and was put into the asylum where he died in 1856.  Brahms wrote his variations, totaling, as an expression of sympathy for Schumann's wife and master pianist, Clara, for whom Brahms had a strong attachment.  She performed these variations in addition to her own that she had composed earlier.
The Paganini variations were viewed by the composer of studies based on the violin genius's twenty-fourth caprice.  There are, in all, twenty-eight variations, written in 1863 and, unlike most of his other work, these variations had a more grandiose character to it, perhaps because of their nature as explorations in the expression of varied ways of playing the piano from the technical standpoint.  It is said that these variations are quite hard to play, but, then again, Paganini's violin works also are the hallmark of precision and technical mastery.
Idil Biret, a native of Turkey's capital Ankara, graduated from the Paris Conservatory at 15 and began performing in concert halls throughout the world.  Among her work for Naxos are many recordings of the music of the great Chopin and she has recorded large sets of the complete piano works of that composer, of Brahms and of Rachmaninoff and a 19-CD set of works by Beethoven.  A new project by the 71-year old master for Naxos, due later this year, is the recording of the five piano concertos of Paul Hindemith.
Brahms was at artistic odds with such "modern" composers as Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whose drama and grandiosity was a strong counterpoint to the more "Romantic" tendencies of Brahms, whose work hearkened back to earlier heroes of his like Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and, of course, Schumann.  Not perhaps unlike Tchaikovky, Brahms, though, was able to infuse his love of classic Romantic melodies with a style that bridged that past with the future of 19th-century music, both in terms of piano compositions and later symphonies.
Johannes Brahms:  Variations (Paganini, Handel, Schumann)  (Naxos, 1991)
1.  Variations on a Theme by Schumann  18:32
2.  Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel  27:02
3.  Variations on a Theme by Paganini
     Book 1:  13:28
     Book 2:  11:05

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