BRAHMS: Variations, Op. 21 / Five Piano Studies (Idil Biret/ Martin Sauer) (Naxos: 8.550509)
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JohannesBrahms (1833 - 1897)
Variationen??ber ein eigenes Thema, Op. 21, No.1 (Variations on an Original Theme)
Variationen??ber ein ungarisches Lied, Op. 21, No.2 (Variations on a Hungarian Song)
JohannesBrahms was born on 7th May 1833 in the Gangeviertel district of Hamburg, the son ofJohann Jakob Brahms, a double-bass player, and his wife, a seamstress seventeen years hissenior. 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 interestin the piano led to lessons (the instrument from an inspiring teacher and his first modestappearance on the concert platform at the age of ten. From this time onwards he became apupil of Eduard Marxsen, who gave him a firm grounding in classical technique, while heearned money for his family by playing the piano in establishments of doubtful reputationin the St. Pauli district of the port, frequented largely by sailors and others in searchof amusement. By the age of fifteen he had given his first solo concert as a pianist.
In1853 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 afriendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim, through whose agency he met the Schumanns,then established in D??sseldorf. The connection was an important one. Schumann wasimpressed enough by the music Brahms played him to hail him as the long-awaited successorto Beethoven, and his subsequent break-down in February 1854 and ensuing insanity broughtBrahms back to D??sseldorf to help his wife Clara Schumann and her young family. Therelationship with Clara Schumann, one of the most distinguished pianists of the time,lasted until her death in 1896.
Furtherconcert activity and his association with Joachim and Clara Schumann allowed Brahms tomeet many of the most famous musicians of the day. In 1857 he took a temporary position atthe court of Detmold as a conductor and piano teacher, duties that he briefly resumedagain in the following two years, continuing all the time his activity as a composer andspending much of his time in Hamburg, where his ambitions were always to centre.
Brahmsfirst visited Vienna in 1862, giving concerts there and meeting during the course of thewinter the critic Eduard Hanslick, who was to prove a doughty champion. The following yearbrought appointment as conductor of the Vienna Singakademie for the season and in 1864 heagain spent the winter in the city, a pattern repeated in the following years until hefinally took up permanent residence there in 1869. For the rest of his life he remained acitizen of Vienna, travelling often enough to visit friends or to give concerts, andgenerally spending the summer months in the country, where he might concentrate oncomposition without undue disturbance. He came in some ways to occupy a position similarto Beethoven in the musical life of the city, his notorious rudeness generally toleratedand his bachelor habits indulged by an admiring circle of friends. He died in Vienna in1897.
Inthe music of the second half of the nineteenth century Brahms came to occupy a position indirect antithesis to Wagner. The latter had seen in Beethoven's great Choral Symphony the last word in symphonic music. Themusic of the future lay, he claimed, in the new form of music-drama of which he was thesole proponent. His father-in-Iaw Liszt similarly found the way forward in the symphonicpoem, an alloy formed from the musical and extra-musical. Brahms, largely through theadvocacy of Hanslick, found himself the champion of pure or abstract music combinedneither with drama nor any other medium. The distinction was in some ways an artificialone. Nevertheless Brahms, whose background, like Beethoven's, was less literary than thatof Wagner or of Liszt, did significantly extend the range of the symphony and was hailedby many contemporaries as the successor to Beethoven, a future Schumann had prophesied forhim 23 years before the first symphony was written.
TheVariations on an Original Theme, Opus 21 No.1,was written in 1857 and published eleven years later. The characteristic theme, ofexpressive beauty, is followed by a series of eleven variations. The first four of thesegently explore the possibilities inherent in the theme, followed by a fifth that makesimaginative use of a canon in contrary motion, as the left hand imitates the right. A moreelaborate sixth treatment of the theme is followed by the Andante dialogue of the seventh and a more forceful Dminor Allegro. The ninth variation, stillin D minor, provides a dramatic climax, capped by the agitation of the tenth. The lastvariation, longer than those that precede it, opens over a sustained trill on the note D,moving to an extended coda.
Brahmswrote 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 emigre violinist Remenyi, firstarranged for piano by Brahms and sent as a present to Joachim. The rhythm of the theme isirregular, its asymmetry preserved through the first eight variations, the opening six inthe key of D minor, returning in the seventh to the original key of D major. The set endswith an extended version of the theme, moving to an energetic Allegro, a shift of key to B flat major and B flatminor and an emphatic conclusion.
Thefive Studies open with an elaborated versionof Chopin's Study Opus 25 No.2 in F minor,now in rapid right-hand thirds and sixths. The second provides a busy left-handaccompaniment to the final Rondo fromWeber's first Piano Sonata in C major, Opus 24.
The next two studies suggest different possibilities for the Presto from the Gminor Sonata for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1001, the first with the originalmelody at first in the right hand, the second placing the opening section melody in theleft, the process in each case being reversed in the second section of the movement. Thestudies end with a version of the famous D minorChaconne from the Partita for unaccompaniedviolin arranged for the left hand only. The first two studies, representingearlier work, were published in 1869 and those based on Bach ten years later.
Bornin Ankara, Idil Biret started to learn the piano at the age of three and later studied atthe Paris Conservatoire under the guidance of Nadia Boulanger, graduating at the age offifteen with three first prizes. A pupil of Alfred Cortot and of Wilhelm Kempff, sheembarked on her career as a soloist at the age of sixteen, appearing with major orchestrasin the principal musical centres of the world, in collaboration with conductors of thegreatest distinction. To many festival appearances may be added membership of juries forinternational piano competitions, including the Van Cliburn, Queen Elisabeth of theBelgians and Busoni Competitions. She has received the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award inBoston, the Harriet Cohen / Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal in London, the Polish Artistic MeritAward and the French Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Merite. Her more than sixty recordsinclude the first recording of Liszt's transcription of the symphonies of Beethoven, andfor Naxos the complete piano works of Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninov, with a Marco Polodisc of the piano compositions and transcriptions of her mentor Wilhelm Kempff.