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Andreas Boyde Johannes Brahms: Sämtliche Werke für Klavier Solo. Vol. 3 OC 586 CD
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FormatAudio CD
Ordering NumberOC 586
Release date02/10/2009
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Brahms, Johannes

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      Sämtliche Werke für Klavier solo Vol. 3
      Variationen op. 21/1&2
      Händel-Variationen op. 24
      Paganini-Variationen op. 35
      Andreas Boyde, Klavier

      The German pianist Andreas Boyde, who has established his home in London, has made Johannes Brahms’ piano compositions the focus of his work. He is recording Brahms’ entire oeuvre for piano solo on a series of 5 CDs released by OehmsClassics. After the three piano sonatas and the works op. 4, 9 and 10, vol. III follows with a programme of variations: op. 21 no. 1 & 2, the Handel Variations op. 24 and the Paganini Variations op. 35.
      Andreas Boyde does not strain for effect in his Brahms interpretations; to the public, he imparts a message of intensity through clever disposition and musical veracity: “Boyde manages to square the circle: maximum intensity with youthful exuberance is combined with the transparency of the piano score and the tenderness of suddenly appearing lyricism”, was the SZ’s opinion of his sonatas no. 1&2.

      Variations on Variations: Brahms’s reinventions
      of an ‘old-fashioned’ form

      “I send you here some variations, dearest Jussuf. They may not be worth much, but perhaps better things can come from this theme. Write to me about them with your usual welcome forthrightness.“

      Johannes Brahms to Joseph Joachim, Düsseldorf, July 1856

      Few forms suited Brahms’s particular compositional concerns more admirably than theme and variation sets. A lover of formal discipline, he could approach its innate ‘restrictions’ with as much strictness – or freedom – as he chose. As a result, variation sets occur throughout Brahms’s oeuvre, from the very first piano sonata in C major Op. 1 to his Op. 120 No. 2 Clarinet Sonata, and also in larger scale works starting with the Andante of his Op. 18 String Sextet to the finale of his fourth and last symphony Op. 98. It was also one of his favourite vehicles through which to teach composition. It eminently suited Brahms’s economy of mind; from a meagre sixteen bars or so, an infinitude of possibilities could be spun out; listening to this music, one has the sense of Brahms mining his thematic material for its maximum yield.

      Typically, Brahms occupied himself with solo piano variations during a particular phase of his life before setting the genre aside. The opus numbers are misleading, in that they suggest that there is an enormous amount of music separating the completion of Brahms’s Op. 9 Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann (to be found on the second disc of this set) and the variation sets collected here, namely Op. 21 Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 24 and Op. 35. The intervening opus numbers include numerous substantial choral works, solo songs and the monumental Op. 15 D minor Piano Concerto. Brahms’s compositional processes were in fact more consistent; the five sets of variations (six if we include the Op. 23 set of variations on a theme by Robert Schumann for four hands) span a relatively short and pivotal period in Brahms’ life: from meeting Joseph Joachim and the Schumanns in Düsseldorf to professional establishment in Vienna, the city in which he would spend the rest of his life.

      The date of composition for the Op. 21 No. 1 Variations on an Original Theme (insert final track number) remains uncertain, although it was possibly begun in 1854 and certainly complete by early 1857. Op. 21 No. 2 (insert final track number) seems to be a slightly earlier work, possibly stemming from 1853. Certainly we know that in April 1853 Brahms sent Joseph Joachim an arrangement of this Hungarian melody as a gift for the great violin virtuoso. Three years later, Joachim and Brahms were in the habit of sending each other compositions for mutual criticism – canons, variation sets, and larger works. Hence, between July 1856 and February 1857, it was natural that Brahms should send both sets of variations to Joachim. Joachim praised Brahms’s original theme highly (‘Ausnehmend schön ist das Thema!’) but otherwise picked so many faults that Brahms left the work aside for a while, tidying up both sets for publication only in 1861. Despite this late publication date, it is clear that the Op. 21 variations should be regarded as contemporary with the Op. 9 Variations which had appeared in 1854.

      Brahms often approached genres in sets or pairs, in which each exemplar would present a different possibility for the genre (one can think of the Op. 51 pair of string quartets, or the pair of clarinet sonatas Op. 120). This is decidedly true for the Op. 21 variations, in which the uniquely introspective, lyrical nature of No. 1 could not be further removed from the stamping Hungarian rhythm that characterizes No. 2. Interestingly, neither theme is obvious variation material because both contain rhythmic elements that place unusual restrictions on the composer. In Op. 21 No. 1, Brahms’s original theme consists of two nine-bar phrases, rather than the much more usual eight bars. The material itself is also much richer than the usual bare musical bones that lend themselves to variation; its full lush harmonies and chromatic richness make it sound like an elaboration of an idea in itself. Additionally, where traditional variations would be expected to display contrast between successive variations, the mood of Op. 21 No. 1 is almost hypnotically consistent; the first seven (out of eleven) variations are introspective and lyrical in nature. It is true that Variations 8-10 challenge the underlying peace of the work, with staccato octaves and menacing minor keys – the ninth variation practically anticipates Rachmaninoff in its adventurousness - however the traditionally virtuosic coda one would expect at the end of a variation set is abandoned in favour of a quiet closure.

      The Hungarian theme of Op. 21 No. 2 has far blunter musical material, but shares the element of rhythmic ambiguity with its sister set. Brahms frequently used stamping Slavic rhythms, particularly the combined triple/ quadruple metre that characterizes this theme. This metric restriction is not abandoned until the ninth variation (out of a total of thirteen). The overall mood of this set hearkens back to the world of the early sonatas; it is grand, tragico-dramatic and virtuosic. Much of the pianistic texture in both variation sets, such as rhythmic ambiguity, fragmentation of themes, and lyrical textures recalls Schumann’s bestloved piano works.

      To an even greater extent, the Op. 24 Handel Variations (insert final track number) and the Op. 35 Paganini Variations (insert final track number) present two sides of the coin, the one historical, the other modern. Brahms mentioned his Handel Variations Op. 24 in a letter to Clara Schumann of September 1861, telling her that he had composed a set of variations for her birthday. (The dedication on the work reads: ‘Variations for a beloved friend.’) The theme is from Handel’s first B flat Suite, where it appears as an Air with Variations. Brahms owned a first edition of this work dating from 1733. In many ways, these variations can be regarded as a kind of compositional manifesto, declaring Brahms’s fidelity to the forms and techniques of the past; the theme is strictly Baroque, and is varied within a tight harmonic boundary. Nevertheless, the work is not enslaved to the past; rather it embraces more than a hundred years of musical history en route to 1861. On the way, it evokes Baroque dances and embellishments, late Beethovenian grand fugues, Weber-esque hunting horns, Schumannian chromaticism and rhythmic games, high-Romantic minor-key pathos, the epic world of Brahms’s own early piano sonatas, Hungarian dances, music boxes, and in the final bars, a triumphant pealing of bells on a dominant pedal that takes the piece to its vast conclusion. When Brahms played the work to Wagner at the older composer’s villa in Penzing in 1864, Wagner (who was otherwise notoriously rude about Brahms’s work), commented that the variation set ‘shows what can still be done with the old forms by somebody who knows how to handle them.’

      Op. 24 appeared in 1862; shortly afterwards, Brahms made the journey that would determine the rest of his life: he went to Vienna that autumn. He rapidly found that he was in a far more congenial musical environment than his native Hamburg, mixing with leading figures of the day such as the virtuoso pianist Carl Tausig and the musicologist Gustav Nottebohm, who was working on the Beethoven sketchbooks and was a great collector of pre- Bach manuscripts. During this first whirlwind of a winter, he started working on the Op. 35 Studien für Klavier: Variationen über ein Thema von Paganini (they appeared in their final guise in April 1865). This theme needs no introduction, being based on the virtuoso violinist Nicolo Paganini’s best-known Capriccio, Op. 1 No. 24, a work which has famously inspired a range of figures from Schumann and Liszt to Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawski. This final set of solo piano variations takes a completely different tack from Op. 24; dedicated to Tausig, the piece is an extravagant celebration of virtuosity. We must remember the original title ‘Studien’, although it seems ludicrous to treat this piece as a keyboard method. However, it was published as two complementary books, each with fourteen variations and a coda, which can be studied separately or complete. Until the early twentieth century, performers even cherry-picked variations from both volumes to make up their own sets, which is formally impossible with his other variation sets. In this recording, the second book is treated as a continuation, i.e. without the repetition of the theme.

      Brahms’s invocation of Paganini (and by implication Liszt and the new German school) in this work was a provocative one. He has devised an extraordinary range of technical demands, including passagework in thirds, fourths, sixths and octaves, trills, leaps in both hands and cross-rhythms, to name but a few – and often simultaneously within a single variation. The final variation with coda is a monster of relentless octave passagework (a simpler ossia is notated into the first edition which, needless to say, is not played here). This is all combined with characteristically scrupulous attention to shape, harmony and meaning, which renders even the trickiest of passages expressive above all. By the early 1860s, Brahms’s music was already perceived as anathematic to the New German School, chiefly represented by Liszt and Wagner, for its ‘old-fashioned’ qualities. His Op. 35 proves that he could beat the virtuosity school at its own game, and truly merited the respect that Vienna would bestow on him for the remainder of his life.

      Tracklist hide

      CD 1
      • Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
        Variations on a original theme
        • 1.Theme. Variations 1–405:24
        • 2.Variations 5–703:59
        • 3.Variations 8–901:59
        • 4.Variations 10–1105:04
      • 5.Variations on a Hungarian folk song op. 21 No. 206:55
      • Variations on a theme by Handel
        • 6.Theme. Variations 1–404:16
        • 7.Variations 5–1207:30
        • 8.Variations 13–1704:06
        • 9.Variations 18–2506:57
        • 10.Fugue05:09
      • Paganini Variations op. 35
        • 11.Book I12:36
        • 12.Book II10:41
      • Total:01:14:36