About this Recording
8.550958 - BRAHMS, J.: Theme and Variations / Sarabandes / Gavottes (Biret)
English 

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

Theme and Variations (From String Sextet No.1, Op. 18)
Gavotte by Christoph Willibald Gluck
Sarabande and Two Gavottes
Gigue in A Minor
Sarabande in B Minor
Gigue in B Minor
Kleines Klavierstück (Little Piano Piece)
Canon
Canon (inverted)
Rakoczy March
Sarabande in A
Impromptu by Franz Schubert, Op. 90, No.2 (Study for the Left Hand)
Ländler by Franz Schubert
Scherzo from Piano Quintet of Robert Schumann, Op. 44

Johannes Brahms was born on 7th May 1833 in the Gängeviertel district of Hamburg, the son of Johann Jakob Brahms, a double-bass player, and his wife, a seamstress seventeen years his senior. As was natural, he was at first taught music by his father, the violin and cello, with the intention that the boy should follow his father's trade, but his obvious interest in the piano led to lessons on the instrument from an inspiring teacher and his first modest appearance on the concert platform at the age of ten. From this time onwards he became a pupil of Eduard Marxsen, who gave him a firm grounding in classical technique, while he earned money for his family by playing the piano in establishments of doubtful reputation in the St. Pauli district of the port, frequented largely by sailors and others in search of amusement. By the age of fifteen he had given his first solo concert as a pianist.

In 1853 Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, during the course of which he visited Liszt in Weimar, to no effect, and struck up a friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, through whose agency he met the Schumanns then established in Düsseldorf. The connection was an important one. Schumann was impressed enough by the music Brahms played him to hail him as the long-awaited successor to Beethoven, and his subsequent break-down in February 1854 and ensuing insanity brought Brahms back to Düsseldorf to help his wife Clara Schumann and her young family. The relationship with Clara Schumann, one of the most distinguished pianists of the time, lasted until her death in 1896.

Further concert activity and his association with Joachim and Clara Schumann allowed Brahms to meet many of the most famous musicians of the day. In 1857 he took a temporary position at the court of Detmold as a conductor and piano teacher, duties that he briefly resumed again in the following two years, continuing all the time his activity as a composer and spending much of his time in Hamburg, where his ambitions were always to centre.

Brahms first visited Vienna in 1862, giving concerts there and meeting during the course of the winter the critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to prove a doughty champion. The following year brought appointment as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie for the season and in 1864 he again spent the winter in the city, a pattern repeated in the following years until he finally took up permanent residence there in 1869. For the rest of his life he remained a citizen of Vienna, travelling often enough to visit friends or to give concerts, and generally spending the summer months in the country, where he might concentrate on composition without undue disturbance. He came in some ways to occupy a position similar to that of Beethoven in the musical life of the city, his notorious rudeness generally tolerated and his bachelor habits indulged by an admiring circle of friends. He died in Vienna in 1897.

In the music of the second half of the nineteenth century Brahms came to occupy a position in direct antithesis to Wagner. The latter had seen in Beethoven's great Choral Symphony the last word in symphonic music. The music of the future lay, he claimed, in the new form of music-drama of which he was the sole proponent. His father-in-law Liszt similarly found the way forward in the symphonic poem, an alloy formed from the musical and extra-musical. Brahms, largely through the advocacy of Hanslick, found himself the champion of pure or abstract music combined neither with drama nor any other medium. The distinction was in some ways an artificial one. Nevertheless Brahms, whose background, like Beethoven's, was less literary than that of Wagner or of Liszt, did significantly extend the range of the symphony and was hailed by many contemporaries as the successor to Beethoven, a future Schumann had prophesied for him 23 years before the first symphony was written.

Brahms wrote his first set of variations in 1853, the year of his meeting with the Schumanns. It was a form in which he excelled, as the later Handel, Haydn and Paganini variations demonstrated. The D minor Theme and Variations was written in 1860 for Clara Schumann and is an arrangement of the slow movement of his first String Sextet, a transcription that became a favourite of the composer. The theme itself has more than a suggestion of the Bach Chaconne from the D minor Partita, a work he later transcribed for the piano, to be played by the left hand only. The first of the six variations follows Baroque practice in its divided chords. It is followed by a variation that makes use of triplet and cross-rhythms, before the rapid scale runs of the third variation. An expressive D major variation follows, leading to aversion mainly in the upper register and a final variation that explores a lower range before its hushed conclusion.

The transcription by Brahms of a Gavotte from Gluck's opera Iphigénie en Aulide, originally written for Paride ed Elena, was published in 1871 and again dedicated to Clara Schumann, who had long included the work in her repertoire. The lay-out of the arrangement, extending, in its later part, over three staves, is characteristic of Brahms in range and texture, while providing further evidence of his wide musical interests. His investigations of earlier musical forms during the 1850s had led to the composition of piano pieces in Baroque style, the Sarabandes, Gavottes and Gigues written in 1854 and 1855, some of which were probably combined with a Prelude and Aria now lost to form a characteristic Baroque suite. Clara Schumann, as early as 1856, had in her repertoire the Sarabande and Gavottes, which she played in a concert in London, announcing them as in the style of Bach.

The short piano piece (Kleines Klavierstück) briefly bursts into another world, a jeu d'esprit that seems to date from about 1860. The two Canons, for which no particular instrument was originally specified, were written in 1864, testimony to the contrapuntal expertise of Brahms.

Further piano transcriptions include an arrangement of the famous Hungarian Rakoczy March, a version made in 1853, at the time of Brahms's association with the Hungarian émigré Remenyi. His version of Schubert's Opus 90, No.2, Impromptu as a formidable study for the left hand seems to have been written a year or so later, with his characteristic arrangement of Schubert Ländler. In 1854 he made a transcription of Schumann's Piano Quintet for piano duet and in the same year transcribed the Scherzo from the same work for solo piano, capturing the tension and subtle excitement of the movement.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret started to learn the piano at the age of three and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire under the guidance of Nadia Boulanger, graduating at the age of fifteen with three first prizes. A pupil of Alfred Cortot and of Wilhelm Kempff, she embarked on her career as a soloist at the age of sixteen, appearing with major orchestras in the principal musical centres of the world, in collaboration with conductors of the greatest distinction. To many festival appearances may be added membership of juries for international piano competitions, including the Van Cliburn, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians and Busoni Competitions. She has received the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award in Boston, the Harriet Cohen / Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal in London, the Polish Artistic Merit Award and the French Chevalier de l'Orde National du Merite. Her more than sixty records include the first recording of Liszt's transcription of the symphonies of Beethoven, and for Naxos the complete piano works of Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninov, with a Marco Polo disc of the piano compositions and transcriptions of her mentor Wilhelm Kempff.


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