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