Day 334: Variations on Themes (Paganini and Handel)

BrahmsCD28Now this is piano playing!

Finally, Brahms really lets loose, creating variations on a theme by Paganini as well as variations and fugue on a theme by Handel that have life, pizazz, verve…balls.

One of the things that has exasperated me about Brahms is that he seems so reserved, so intellectual, so emotionally walled off that his music doesn’t freakin’ roar.

It doesn’t grab and shake, doesn’t command that I pay attention to it.

Beethoven’s music did that.

Oh, man. Seriously, Ludwig’s music kicked my ass so many times that I couldn’t sit down for a week. I found it to be raw, powerful…full of rage, melancholy, and laughter.

Brahms, on the other hand, writes music – to my ears, anyway – that is respectable, but painfully restrained. It just doesn’t move me. (Well, Haydn’s music didn’t move me at all. Brahms moves me a little bit. But, still, nowhere near on the scale of Beethoven or even Mozart.)

That’s why music like what I’m hearing on today’s CD causes me to sit up and take notice.

It’s different.

And different in a very good way.

Unleashed may be closer to the term I’m looking for.

Here’s what I heard today:

Variations on a Theme by Paganini in A minor

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35, is a work for piano composed in 1863 by Johannes Brahms, based on the Caprice No. 24 in A minor by Niccolò Paganini.

Brahms intended the work to be more than simply a set of theme and variations; each variation also has the characteristic of a study. He published it as Studies for Pianoforte: Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is uncharacteristically showy for Brahms, even Lisztean. Indeed, the work was composed for the piano virtuoso Carl Tausig.

It is well known for its emotional depth and technical challenges. Writer David Dubal describes it as “a legend in the piano literature,” and “fiendish,” “one of the most subtly difficult works in the literature.” Clara Schumann called it Hexenvariationen (Witch’s Variations) because of its difficulty.


I told you this was different. It crackles with life. Because it’s difficult to play, it’s more entertaining to hear being played.

Brahms was 30 when he composed these brilliant variations.

By the way, pianist Wolfram plays Continue reading

Day 330: St. Anthony Variations, 16 Waltzes, Variations on a Theme by Schumann

BrahmsCD24I’m not as enamored with today’s piano music as I was yesterday’s, although it’s pretty.

It’s not just as intriguing or magical.

This might make good background music.

But it’s not compelling enough to be good active-listening music.

Not for me, anyway. You’re mileage may vary.

Here are the three two-piano compositions:

Variations on a theme by Haydn (“St. Anthony Chorale” Op. 56b for two pianos)

There’s a good article about this composition posted on The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra web site, part of which says:

The theme at the heart of Brahms’s piece is likely not the work of Joseph Haydn, despite the work’s title. It came to Brahms by way of an unpublished divertimento score, discovered in 1870 by the Viennese music librarian Carl Ferdinand Pohl while he was preparing a Haydn biography. Knowing Brahms’s fascination with early music, Pohl showed the composer the manuscript. Brahms was particularly struck by the movement headed “St. Anthony Chorale,” scored for eight wind instruments. Brahms copied out the chorale and returned to it in the summer of 1873 as the basis for the set of variations, fleshed out in parallel versions for two pianos (completed first, but given the secondary Opus number of 56b) and for orchestra.

If that’s true, Brahms was 40 when he composed these pieces of music.

16 Waltzes Op. 39 for piano four hands

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

Sixteen Waltzes, Op. 39 is a set of 16 short waltzes for piano four hands written by Johannes Brahms. They were composed in 1865, and published two years later, dedicated to Eduard Hanslick. These waltzes were also arranged for piano solo by the composer, in two different versions – difficult and simplified. The three versions were published at the same time, and sold well, contrary to the composer’s expectations. In the solo versions, some of the keys were altered from the original duet version (the last four in the difficult version and No. 6 in the easy version). Waltz Number 15 in A major (or A-flat major) has acquired a life of its own. An arrangement of five of the waltzes (Nos. 1, 2, 11, 14, and 15) for two pianos, four hands was published after the composer’s death.

Brahms was 32 when he composed these waltzes.

Variations on a theme by Schumann Op. 23 for piano four hands

According to the web site IMSLP, these variations were composed in 1861. If that’s true, Brahms was 28.

Here are the four hands playing today’s music:

Bracha Eden piano
Alexander Tamier piano

Day 324: Piano Quartet No. 2

BrahmsCD18I do so love the sound of Classical piano and stringed instruments playing together.

Today’s CD – Piano Quartet No. 2 in A Op. 26 – does an adequate job of filling my ears with what I love most about Classical music.


This composition is oddly incongruous with itself. The piano sounds like it was recorded in another era while the stringed instruments sound modern.

Or, to put it another way, this recording (or maybe it’s the composition itself) sounds like the piano is playing either in a different room, or a different time (even a different piece of music!) and the stringed instruments are laid over the piano track.

I know that’s not the case. Brilliant Classics is my favorite music label. Everything they do is first-rate, top-notch, and with the highest regard for quality in mind. So the problem is not the recording. The problem is the composition itself.

The worst offender of this is Movement I (“Allegro non troppo”) which starts out with piano and strings relatively together. But then, very shortly, the piano starts to meander off by itself and the strings play their parts almost incongruously. Almost like Jazz music. The different instruments peal off on their own for awhile, then return to play the main melody.

But it sounds odd in this composition because the piano is not as prominent as the strings. The volume level. They don’t mesh well. The piano is quiet and relegated to the background. The strings are right up front.

According to its entry on Wikipedia:

Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 26, by Johannes Brahms is scored for piano, violin, viola and cello. It was completed in 1861 and received its premiere in November 1863 by the Hellmesberger Quartet with the composer playing the piano part. It has been especially noted for drawing influence from composer Franz Schubert. Lasting approximately 50 minutes, this quartet is the longest of Brahms’s chamber works to perform.

Not even the pizzicato can save this piece for me.

Speaking of pizzicato, Brahms seems to use it a lot. Yet, it doesn’t have the same effect on me that it does in the music of other composers.

Anyway, Brahms was 28 when he composed this piece for piano and strings.

Today’s music was performed by:

Derek Han piano
Isabell Faust violin (Stradivari, 1704)
Bruno Giuranna viola
Alain Meunier cello

I really wish I could hear some Brahms that blew me away the way Beethoven’s music did. So far, though, not so much.

That’s not to say Brahms was a hack. It just says that his music doesn’t resonate with me the way Beethoven’s did.