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8.550509 - BRAHMS, J.: Variations, Op. 21 / 5 Piano Studies (Biret)

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)

Variationen über ein eigenes Thema, Op. 21, No.1 (Variations on an Original Theme)
Variationen über ein ungarisches Lied, Op. 21, No.2 (Variations on a Hungarian Song)

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 (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 Reményi, 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-Iaw 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.

The Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 21 No.1, was written in 1857 and published eleven years later. The characteristic theme, of expressive beauty, is followed by a series of eleven variations. The first four of these gently explore the possibilities inherent in the theme, followed by a fifth that makes imaginative use of a canon in contrary motion, as the left hand imitates the right. A more elaborate sixth treatment of the theme is followed by the Andante dialogue of the seventh and a more forceful D minor Allegro. The ninth variation, still in D minor, provides a dramatic climax, capped by the agitation of the tenth. The last variation, longer than those that precede it, opens over a sustained trill on the note D, moving to an extended coda.

Brahms wrote his first set of Variations in 1853, the year of his meeting with Joachim and with the Schumanns. The Variations on a Hungarian Song, Opus 21 No.2, published in 1861, use a melody borrowed from the émigré violinist Reményi, first arranged for piano by Brahms and sent as a present to Joachim. The rhythm of the theme is irregular, its asymmetry preserved through the first eight variations, the opening six in the key of D minor, returning in the seventh to the original key of D major. The set ends with an extended version of the theme, moving to an energetic Allegro, a shift of key to B flat major and B flat minor and an emphatic conclusion.

The five Studies open with an elaborated version of Chopin's Study Opus 25 No.2 in F minor, now in rapid right-hand thirds and sixths. The second provides a busy left-hand accompaniment to the final Rondo from Weber's first Piano Sonata in C major, Opus 24. The next two studies suggest different possibilities for the Presto from the G minor Sonata for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1001, the first with the original melody at first in the right hand, the second placing the opening section melody in the left, the process in each case being reversed in the second section of the movement. The studies end with a version of the famous D minor Chaconne from the Partita for unaccompanied violin arranged for the left hand only. The first two studies, representing earlier work, were published in 1869 and those based on Bach ten years later.

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'Ordre National du Mérite. 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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