About this Recording
8.110634 - BRAHMS: Paganini and Handel Variations (Petri) (1937-1940)

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)


Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35

Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

Rhapsody in B minor, Op. 79, No. 1

Rhapsody in G minor, Op. 79, No. 2

Rhapsody in E flat major, Op. 119, No. 4


The pianist Egon Petri was born in Hanover in 1881 and had his first violin lessons at the age of five from his father, the Dutch-born violinist Henri Petri, a favourite pupil of Joseph Joachim. Henri Petri had become Konzertmeister at the Royal Theatre in Hanover in 1881 and two years later took up a similar position with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, before moving in 1889 to lead the Royal Chapel Orchestra in Dresden Egon Petri started his study of the piano in 1888, going on to further work under Richard Buchmayer, a musician and scholar with a strong interest in earlier music, and with Teresa Carreno. He also studied the organ, the French horn and composition, while completing his general education at the Dresden Kreuzschule in 1899. His first employment was as second violin in his father's quartet and as a member of the Royal Orchestra in Dresden, but by 1901 it had become apparent to him that his true vocation was that of a pianist, a decision in which he was encouraged by Ferruccio Busoni, a friend of the family.


Petri went on to take lessons with Busoni in Berlin, where he also studied philosophy, continuing his studies under Busoni in Weimar and Dresden, before embarking on a concert career, at first in Holland and Germany, then throughout Europe and in the United States. One of the first foreign musicians of stature to visit the Soviet Union, he won considerable and continuing success there. His association with Busoni, with whom he appeared in London in 1921 in two-piano recitals, remained of importance, influencing his style of performance and making him one of the foremost interpreters of Busoni's work.


Enjoying, at the same time, a very considerable reputation as a teacher, Petri served as a professor at the then Royal Manchester College of Music from 1905 to 1911, following this with similar work in Basle and at the Berlin Hochschule fur Musik. In 1927 he had made his home at Zakopane in Poland, but in 1938 he moved to America, spending the war years as pianist-in-residence at Cornell University and becoming an American citizen. In 1947 he moved to Mills College in California, holding a similar position there and only interrupting his stay to teach briefly in Basle. He died in 1962.


Brahms had written his first set of variations for piano in 1853, the year in which, in the course of a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi, he had visited and failed to impress Liszt in Weimar and started his long friendship with another Hungarian violinist, Henri Petri's later teacher, Joseph Joachim. His Variations on a Hungarian Theme were followed in 1854 by the first of his Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, after his first meeting with that composer The later years of the decade saw the composition of further variations, but it was in 1861 that he wrote his well-known Variations on a Theme by Handel, Opus 24, a work that he first performed in his native Hamburg. A second performance was given by the now widowed Clara Schumann, to whom the variations were seemingly dedicated. In 1862 Brahms included the Handel Variations in his first recital in Vienna, where he was later to settle. The critic Eduard Hanslick welcomed the work as particularly well suited to the composer's gifts, combining richness of formal outline and consistency of mood. The variations are based on an air from one of Handel's keyboard suites and the whole set seems admirably suited to Petri's remarkable gifts of clarity, with the slight rubato in the third variation, the bold vigour of the fourth, the subtle variations of tempo in the repeated sections of the fifth, the muted tones of the sixth variations in octaves, contrasted with the French horn timbres of the variation that follows. The performance gives the clearest example of Egon Petri's combination of absolute technical command with the deepest understanding of the music, the whole culminating in a masterly interpretation of the final fugue.


Brahms chose the title Studien for the work now known generally as Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Opus 35, and dedicated to the virtuoso Carl Tausig. The theme is that of the 24th Caprice of Paganini for solo violin, which is also subjected to variations in that work and has provided later composers with an equally fertile source of inspiration. The two books of variations, fourteen in each, were completed in 1863 and described by Clara Schumann as Hexenvariationen (Witch Variations), when she first saw the manuscript. The work makes much greater technical demands on a performer than the Handel Variations, from the rapid sixths of the first and second, the violinistic texture of the third, the awkward trills of the fourth and subtle cross-rhythms of the fifth The challenges continue, with a relaxation of tension in the charm of the eleventh version of the material, linked by the twelfth to the thirteenth, with its effortless glissando octaves The book follows the virtuoso fourteenth variation with a coda. Although the technical demands of the second book are no less, the set has a clearer general musical shape, superbly presented in a superlative performance.


The three Rhapsodies are later works, the first two, Opus 79, completed in 1879, and the third, Opus 119, No.4, in 1893, the last of Brahms' piano compositions. These were recorded by Egon Petri in 1940, formidable works that make a suitable conclusion to the present release, testimony to one of the greatest and most interesting pianists of the twentieth century


Keith Anderson


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