BRAHMS: Variations Opp. 9, 24 and 35 (Idil Biret/ Martin Sauer) (Naxos: 8.550350)
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Variations& Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24
Variationson a Theme of Robert Schumann, Op. 9
Variationson a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35
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 on the instrument from an inspiring teacher and his firstmodest appearance on the concert platform at the age of ten. From this time onwards hebecame 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 doubtfulreputation in the St. Pauli district of the port, frequented largely by sailors and othersin search of amusement. By the age of fifteen he had given his first solo concert as apianist.
In1853 Brahms embarked on a concert tour with the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remenyi, duringthe course of which he visited Liszt in Weimar, to no effect, and struck up a friendshipwith the violinist Joseph Joachim, through whose agency he met the Schumanns, thenestablished in D??sseldorf. The connection was an important one. Schumann was impressedenough by the music Brahms played him to hail him as the long-awaited successor toBeethoven, 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 thelast word in symphonic music. The music of the future lay, he claimed, in the new form ofmusic-drama of which he was the sole proponent. His father-in-law Liszt similarly foundthe 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 orabstract music combined neither with drama nor any other medium. The distinction was insome ways an artificial one. Nevertheless Brahms, whose background, like Beethoven's, wasless literary than that of Wagner or of Liszt, did significantly extend the range of thesymphony and was hailed by many contemporaries as the successor to Beethoven, a futureSchumann had prophesied for him 23 years before the first symphony was written.
Wagnercame to have little good to say of Brahms. In 1879 he wrote of composers that one mightmeet one day in the disguise of a ballad-singer, the next in Handel's Hallelujah wig andanother time as a Jewish czardas player, and then as a symphonist purporting to be anumber ten, a reference to popular praise of the FirstSymphony of Brahms as the Tenth of Beethoven. Wagner was nothing if notsingle-minded in pursuit of his own material and artistic ends. When the two composersfirst met, in Vienna in 1864, Brahms played for Wagner his Variations on a Theme ofHandel, written in 1861 and first performed in Hamburg by the composer in the same year.
Wagner was surprisingly polite when he remarked that one might see what might still bedone with the old forms in the hands of someone who knew how to deal with them.
Brahms'sHandel Variations were intended for ClaraSchumann, the manuscript bearing a dedication to a beloved friend. The theme is taken froma suite for harpsichord, an air, followed originally by five variations. From this themeBrahms creates a remarkable work, a series of twenty-five variations followed by a finalfugue, showing a consummate mastery of the form. The versions of the theme offered differin mood and texture, but are all highly characteristic of their composer, who in no sensewears Handel's wig in the process. The whole set follows a tradition to which Beethovenhad added very considerably.
TheVariations on a Theme of Schumann, Opus 9,were written in 1854. The theme chosen as a tribute to the composer was taken fromSchumann's Opus 99 Bunte Blatter. In thesummer of 1853 Clara Schumann had written her own >Opus20 variations on the same theme. Early in 1854 Schumann had attempted suicideand in March entered the private asylum at Endenich where he remained until his death in1856. Brahms wrote his Schumann variations in May and June in an attempt to offer ClaraSchumann some comfort, as she recovered from the recent birth of her seventh survivingchild, Felix, and the appalling situation in which she found herself. Brahms's variationswere, as the autograph manuscript reveals, on a theme by HIM, dedicated to HER. The themeis from the first of the Bunte Blatter, with the ninth of the sixteen variations aparaphrase of the second of Schumann's little pieces. The tenth variation makes use inpassing of a theme by Clara that Schumann himself had used in his Opus 5 Impromptus.
Thetwo books of Paganini Variations, Opus 35,carry the title of Studies, an accurate description of their nature and intention. Thewell known theme is that of the violinist Paganini's 24thCaprice, there too the subject for virtuoso variations. Brahms was influencedby the pianist Karl Tausig, whom he met in Vienna in 1862, and whose virtuosity as aperformer offered something of a challenge. Unlike the HandelVariations, the Paganini Variations
are not conceived in terms of the progressive development of the thematic material, andClara Schumann, among others, was in the habit of making her own selection of variationsfor public performance. The two sets of fourteen variations explore the technicalpossibilities of the instrument and make considerable demands on a performer. They werefirst published in 1866.
Bornin Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed anoutstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three firstprizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cort