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8.550350 - BRAHMS, J.: Variations, Opp. 9, 24 and 35 (Biret)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24
Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, Op. 9
Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35

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 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.

Wagner came to have little good to say of Brahms. In 1879 he wrote of composers that one might meet one day in the disguise of a ballad-singer, the next in Handel's Hallelujah wig and another time as a Jewish czardas player, and then as a symphonist purporting to be a number ten, a reference to popular praise of the First Symphony of Brahms as the Tenth of Beethoven. Wagner was nothing if not single-minded in pursuit of his own material and artistic ends. When the two composers first met, in Vienna in 1864, Brahms played for Wagner his Variations on a Theme of Handel, written in 1861 and first performed in Hamburg by the composer in the same year. Wagner was surprisingly polite when he remarked that one might see what might still be done with the old forms in the hands of someone who knew how to deal with them.

Brahms's Handel Variations were intended for Clara Schumann, the manuscript bearing a dedication to a beloved friend. The theme is taken from a suite for harpsichord, an air, followed originally by five variations. From this theme Brahms creates a remarkable work, a series of twenty-five variations followed by a final fugue, showing a consummate mastery of the form. The versions of the theme offered differ in mood and texture, but are all highly characteristic of their composer, who in no sense wears Handel's wig in the process. The whole set follows a tradition to which Beethoven had added very considerably.

The Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Opus 9, were written in 1854. The theme chosen as a tribute to the composer was taken from Schumann's Opus 99 Bunte Blatter. In the summer of 1853 Clara Schumann had written her own >Opus 20 variations on the same theme. Early in 1854 Schumann had attempted suicide and in March entered the private asylum at Endenich where he remained until his death in 1856. Brahms wrote his Schumann variations in May and June in an attempt to offer Clara Schumann some comfort, as she recovered from the recent birth of her seventh surviving child, Felix, and the appalling situation in which she found herself. Brahms's variations were, as the autograph manuscript reveals, on a theme by HIM, dedicated to HER. The theme is from the first of the Bunte Blatter, with the ninth of the sixteen variations a paraphrase of the second of Schumann's little pieces. The tenth variation makes use in passing of a theme by Clara that Schumann himself had used in his Opus 5 Impromptus.

The two books of Paganini Variations, Opus 35, carry the title of Studies, an accurate description of their nature and intention. The well known theme is that of the violinist Paganini's 24th Caprice, there too the subject for virtuoso variations. Brahms was influenced by the pianist Karl Tausig, whom he met in Vienna in 1862, and whose virtuosity as a performer offered something of a challenge. Unlike the Handel Variations, the Paganini Variations are not conceived in terms of the progressive development of the thematic material, and Clara Schumann, among others, was in the habit of making her own selection of variations for public performance. The two sets of fourteen variations explore the technical possibilities of the instrument and make considerable demands on a performer. They were first published in 1866.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and composition with Nadia Boulanger.

Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret has performed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals of Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul. She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.

Idil Biret received the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal (1959) and the Polish Artistical Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite in 1976.

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