Playlist: Brahms and Variations

James Jolly Thu 1st March 2018

James Jolly explores Brahms's fascination with variation form

This first listening journeys prompted by this month’s Brahms from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra takes in six sets of Brahms’s variations, a form that fascinated him throughout his composing life, ranging from his Op 1 (the First Piano Sonata with its second-movement set of variations) to his Op 120 (the Second Clarinet Sonata’s finale). His first exploration of the form for piano is the Variations on a Hungarian Song from 1835. It draws great energy from the alternating 3/4 and 4/4 bars, allied to a robustness that, surprisingly, offers considerable scope for elaboration (try Julius Katchen from his classic Decca set). The next set, the Variations on a theme by Schumann, Op 19, is a much stronger work, drawing on the fourth of Schumann’s Op 99 Bunte Blätter. But Schumann does more than provide the theme; his spirit seems to infuse Brahms’s work, even offering a dual identity (echoing the elder composer’s Florestan and Eusebius). András Schiff is a poetic guide. The Hungarian Song’s twin, the Variations on an Original Theme (Op 21 No 1), probably came next – a work of wonderful poise and emotional depth which, interestingly, draws its variation potential from the theme’s harmonic rather than melodic or rhythmic promise (though it has a lovely hymn-like aura all of its own). Barry Douglas, in his fine Chandos piano survey, does it proud. Brahms’s next set of variations started life as chamber work (the second movement of the First String Sextet) but Clara Schumann pleaded for a piano version, and the composer complied with the lovely Theme and Variations in D minor as a birthday present. It’s a gorgeous piece with remarkable breadth and allusion (Bach is hovering somewhere in the background much of the time). In 1861, Brahms wrote one of his greatest sets of piano variations, Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, drawing the theme from one of the harpsichord suites. It’s a magnificent achievement, displaying consummate craftsmanship for the instrument and a powerful dynamism that hurls the work at the final fugue. Murray Perahia’s recording won him a Gramophone Award. The Variations on a Theme of Paganini, in two books (each with 14 variations), is a virtuoso masterpiece of invention and imagination, and needs a pianist of Yuja Wang’s fearless technique to make light of the work’s staggering demands. She doesn’t fail us!

Listen to playlist on Qobuz

Explore: 

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£67/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe
From£67/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£67/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2018