About this Recording
8.571303-04 - BRAHMS, J.: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (arr. I. Biret for piano) / Paganini Variations / Hungarian Dances (Biret Archive Edition, Vols. 16, 17)

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Symphony No. 3 • Symphony No. 4
(Transcribed by Idil Biret)
6 Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 • Paganini Variations, Op. 35, Books I & II
(Transcribed for solo piano by Brahms)


Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg in 1833, the son of a double-bass player and his much older wife, a seamstress. His childhood was spent in relative poverty, and his early studies in music, as a pianist rather than as a string-player, developed his talent to such an extent that there was talk of touring as a prodigy at the age of eleven. It was Eduard Marxsen who gave him a grounding in the technical basis of composition, while the boy was able to use his talents by teaching and by playing the piano in summer inns, rather than in the dockside taverns of popular legend, a romantic idea which he himself seems later to have encouraged.

In 1851 Brahms met the émigré Hungarian violinist Reményi, who introduced him to Hungarian dance music that had a later influence on his work. Two years later he set out in his company on his first concert tour, their journey taking them, on the recommendation of the Hungarian violinist Joachim, to Weimar, where Franz Liszt held court and might have been expected to show particular favour to a fellow-countryman. Reményi profited from the visit, but Brahms, with a lack of tact that was later accentuated, failed to impress the Master. Later in the year, however, he met the Schumanns, through Joachim’s agency. The meeting was a fruitful one.

In 1850 Schumann had taken up the offer from the previous incumbent, Ferdinand Hiller, of the position of municipal director of music in Düsseldorf, the first official appointment of his career and the last. Now in the music of Brahms he detected a promise of greatness and published his views in the journal he had once edited, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, declaring Brahms the long-awaited successor to Beethoven. In the following year Schumann, who had long suffered from intermittent periods of intense depression, attempted suicide. His final years, until his death in 1856, were to be spent in an asylum, while Brahms rallied to the support of Schumann’s wife, the gifted pianist Clara Schumann, and her young family, remaining a firm friend until her death in 1896, shortly before his own in the following year.

Brahms had always hoped that sooner or later he would be able to return in triumph to a position of distinction in the musical life of Hamburg. This ambition was never fulfilled. Instead he settled in Vienna, intermittently from 1863 and definitively in 1869, establishing himself there and seeming to many to fulfill Schumann’s early prophecy. In him his supporters, including, above all, the distinguished critic and
writer Eduard Hanslick, saw a true successor to Beethoven and a champion of music untrammelled by extra-musical associations, of pure music, as opposed to the Music of the Future promoted by Wagner and Liszt, a path to which Joachim and Brahms both later publicly expressed their opposition.

The first of Brahms’s symphonies was slow in gestation. Overawed by the example of Beethoven and the manifold expectations of his friends, and unresponsive to their anxious queries, he eventually completed his Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op. 68, in the summer of 1876. He was still busy with the four-hand piano arrangement of the first symphony, when, in the summer of 1877, he started work on his Symphony No.2 in D major, Op. 73, while staying for the first time at Pörtschach on the Wörthersee, completing it at Lichtental in the autumn. The first performance was given in Vienna on 30th December, followed in 1878 by publication, after the necessary corrections of the score and the four-hand piano version, during a second summer at Pörtschach.

In the summer of 1883 Brahms took rooms in the spa town of Wiesbaden, perhaps to be near the young singer Hermine Spies, his Hermione without an ‘o’, whose musical abilities served as inspiration for his Op. 96 and Op. 97 songs. Symphony No.3 in F major, described by a contemporary as Brahms’ ‘Eroica’, after the preceding ‘Pastoral’, was first performed in Vienna on 2nd December. As was the custom, Brahms made a four-hand piano version of the work, for two pianos, the usual way of introducing such a work to wider attention. Arrangement of a work of this kind for a single pianist presented a much greater challenge. The symphony starts with impressive chords for wind instruments, followed by the impressive descending principal theme, with its nod to Robert Schumann and characteristic mixture of major and minor. The clarinet A major second subject is marked Grazioso, a pastoral contrast to the grandeur of the first theme. The forceful conclusion of the exposition, which is repeated, is followed by the full chords that open the central development, leading to the return of the first subject in recapitulation.. The clarinet and bassoon opening of the C major Andante has brief interjections from the strings, and the clarinet and bassoon also have the second subject, marked Dolce. There follows a development and a free recapitulation. A cello theme starts the C minor third movement, accompanied at first by the other strings, flutes and bassoons, a world away from the traditional scherzo in its Brahmsian autumnal melancholy. The principal theme returns in the French horn, after the trio section, with its syncopated accompaniment. The last movement opens sotto voce and in unison, before the piano takes up the chordal treatment of the theme by the woodwind. The second subject of this imposing sonata-form movement translates the repeated note triplets of second violins and violas into acceptable piano idiom, with characteristic cross-rhythms. The symphony ends with none of the defiance of Beethoven, but rather with gently suggested memories of the motif that started the whole work, concluding a work that the contemporary critic Eduard Hanslick found artistically the most perfect of the first three Brahms symphonies.

Brahms’s Hungarian Dances reflect an interest that had been awakened by his early collaboration with the violinist Ede Reményi. His Hungarian Dances, originally for piano duet, appeared in four sets, the first two in 1869 and the second pair in 1880. Brahms later orchestrated three of them, and others were orchestrated by Dvořák and others. The dances themselves make use of gypsy melodies, although three of them appear to be entirely original, and Brahms played some of them to friends in the 1850s in versions for two hands. This earlier form of some of the dances was rejected by publishers and it was the piano duet version that was first issued by the publisher Simrock in 1869. In 1871 Brahms published a version of some of the dances for one player.

The summer of 1884 brought the beginning of work on the fourth and last of Brahms’s symphonies, the Symphony in E minor, Op. 98. This was completed at the same summer resort of Mürzzuschlag the following summer, to be performed under the composer’s direction at Meiningen in October. As in the preceding transcription the arrangement for piano brings a degree of clarity to the structure of the work, from the quiet serenity of the opening and the massive grandeur that follows, mingled with lyricism, in a monumental sonata-form movement. In the second movement Richard Strauss imagined a funeral procession moving silently across moonlit heights, suggesting, perhaps, an evocative painting by Caspar David Friedrich. A cello theme assumes prominence, with a decorative first violin part, after which the march resumes. The scherzo opens forcefully. Although it lacks a formal trio section, there is a relaxation of tension at the heart of the movement, before the original material returns in full vigour. It seems that Brahms had long contemplated a final movement in chaconne or passacaglia form, derived from his study of Bach. The movement starts with the passacaglia theme, scored in the orchestral version for wind instruments, now reinforced in grandeur by three trombones. In the thirty variations that follow Brahms demonstrates his mastery of the form and his debt to tradition, the whole revealed in the greatest clarity in the piano reduction of a work that had at first puzzled some of Brahms’s friends and supporters.

Brahms’s two books of Paganini Variations carry the title Studies, an accurate description of their nature and intention. The well known theme is that of the violinist Paganini’s 24th Caprice, which there too is the subject of a set of virtuoso variations. Brahms was influenced by the pianist Karl Tausig, whom he met in Vienna in 1862, and whose virtuosity as a performer offered an obvious challenge. The variations, dedicated to Tausig, do not offer a progressive thematic development of the theme 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 piano and make considerable demands on a performer. They were first performed by Brahms in 1865 and published the following year.

Keith Anderson

As early as I can remember, I made piano transcriptions of the symphonic music I was listening to on records or on the radio. In those days I did not yet read notes and reproduced everything from memory. So, I had played the Beethoven Symphonies when I was a child and I knew them all almost by heart. You can transcribe a work either according to the score or by what you hear. Which is the better way, I wonder? I made transcriptions of the Third and Fourth Symphonies of Brahms in the 1990s based on the versions for two pianos that the composer had made. I also made transcriptions of four songs from the Brahms song cycle Die schöne Magelone. All these scores are in manuscript form and have not yet been published. I have included these transcriptions often in the programs of my concerts.

Idil Biret

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