About this Recording
8.571295 - BRAHMS, J.: Variations on a Theme by Handel / Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 13)

I remember well the day when Idil, still an adolescent at the time, came to my office on Avenue Hoche in Paris, in a mansion where the Véga record label was installed (those were the days when record publishers were rolling in cash). I had never met Idil but knew her from the first recordings she made for the Pretoria label, for which I had been asked to write the music notes. I had invited Idil for a first meeting with the idea to propose her a collaboration. She came to avenue Hoche with her parents—and my most vivid memory of her that day was the authority she showed, her will, and the gentle but firm manner with which she made her parents understand that that they were not there to intervene. The result of this visit was two magnificent records: one Brahms and one Bartók-Prokofiev (the sparkling Seventh Sonata!).

Claude Samuel (From the preface to the French edition of the book on Idil Biret, A Turkish Pianist in France – Buchet/Chastel 2006)

Translation from the French by Sefik B. Yuksel

Johannes Brahms (1834–1897)
Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35

Brahms was still a young man when he wrote his two best-known sets of variations for piano: those on a theme by Handel, which he performed in Vienna in 1862, and those on a caprice by Paganini (1866). Hence these keystones of the pianistic repertoire exude not only the unexpected maturity that inspired them, but also a sense of vitality, a certain panache that a deep-rooted and somewhat hidebound tradition may conceal from the unschooled ear.

Like Beethoven before him, Brahms was a great admirer of Handel. Keen to win over the Viennese public on his first visit to the city, he wanted to offer them music which would allow him to express himself freely but would not upset local sensibilities. An initial concert given on 16 November 1862 had earned him the unfortunate reputation—one he found hard to shake off thereafter—of being “gloomy, obscure and difficult”. He therefore had to overcome any preconceived ideas held by the people attending his second concert, whose programme featured the Piano Quartet in A major, several Lieder and the Handel Variations, with the composer of course as soloist. It seemed likely that an audience who idolised Liszt would react favourably to a work of the transcendent virtuosity that characterises the Variations. Brahms added to this external aspect the prestige of a theme borrowed from Handel (the Harpsichord Suite in B flat major) and the scholarly splendour of twenty-five variations crowned, inevitably, by a monumental fugue. Romantic in both inspiration and principle, the work therefore forced that first audience to choose, as Brahms combined seriousness of intent with spectacular virtuosity and flamboyance. His performance was evidently a triumph, enabling him to write, without false modesty, “I had extraordinary success at the keyboard”.

The Paganini Variations, written some years later, but still before the composer had really established himself, marked a return to a genre he clearly held dear. This time the theme is borrowed from the most famous of Paganini’s Caprices, a collection of short violin pieces that the renowned Italian virtuoso had written for his own personal use. This particular Caprice has led an exceptional life, having been used as the basis for variations by Schumann and Liszt and then, decades later, by Rachmaninov and Boris Blacher. The legendary tales of a deal with the devil that haunted the rather ordinary figure of Paganini (a myth enhanced by the rather cruel portrait of the musician painted by Heinrich Heine in his Travel Pictures!) explain the feverish and deliberately fantastical character of the work. Clara Schumann, when she heard it, called it the “Witches’ Variations” and it is understandable that Brahms, a passionate admirer of another slightly overrated “fantastiqueur”, German Romantic writer ETA Hoffmann, should here give free rein to his imagination, a northern European suddenly liberated from any obligation to respect form or tradition. Hence in this most acrobatic of works he pushes his variation technique to its furthest extent, subjecting the original theme to all kinds of unusual cuts and additions, mutations and amplifications, breaking it down into fragments and piecing it together again any old how, often rendering it completely unrecognisable—a process far removed from classical variation technique in which only rhythm or tempo were modified. And yet his powerful instinct for lucidity is ever vigilant, ensuring that this unbridled fantasy never appears absurd, incomprehensible or illogical.

Here lies the difficulty in performing these two sets of Variations: both need to be played with absolute freedom, but with one eye always on the underlying unity of the overall work, even if that unity is not immediately discernible. By subtitling the Handel Variations “Studies for piano”, Brahms’s intent was clear from the start—to provide entertainment while at the same time reminding us of the salutary precepts of tradition.

Marcel Marnat
English translation by Susannah Howe

This recording was originally released in 1962 on a French mono LP, Véga C 30 A 345

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