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Hyperion Records

CDH55201 - Beethoven & Brahms: Variations
(Originally issued on EL 1021-2)
Recording details: December 1989
Abbey Road Studios, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ates Orga
Engineered by Peter Bown
Release date: November 2004
Total duration: 53 minutes 46 seconds


'… ce programme vient nous rappeler le vrai talent de cette Arménienne … Les Variations Haendel sont, et l'on pèse ces mots, tout simplement les plus belles qu'il ait été donné d'entendre: d'un ton, d'une maîtrise, d'un style fabuleux, d'un stupéfiant équilibre entre tension et tendresse, elles sont la perfection d'un bout à l'autre, bouleversantes jusqu'à la gigantesque Fugue qui n'a jamais été chantée à ce point' (Diapason, France)

Beethoven & Brahms: Variations
Aria  [1'03]
Variation 1  [0'52]
Variation 2  [0'52]
Variation 3  [0'52]
Variation 4  [0'49]
Variation 5  [1'24]
Variation 6  [1'18]
Variation 7  [0'36]
Variation 8  [0'38]
Variation 9  [1'28]
Variation 10  [0'39]
Variation 11  [1'08]
Variation 12  [1'13]
Variation 13  [1'45]
Variation 14  [0'38]
Variation 15  [0'48]
Variation 16  [0'35]
Variation 17  [0'41]
Variation 18  [0'57]
Variation 19  [1'08]
Variation 20  [1'16]
Variation 21  [1'01]
Variation 22  [1'06]
Variation 23  [0'34]
Variation 24  [0'35]
Variation 25  [0'41]
Fuga  [5'12]
Tema  [0'43]
Variation 1  [0'37]
Variation 2  [0'53]
Variation 3  [0'42]
Variation 4  [0'38]
Variation 5  [0'48]
Variation 6  [0'39]
Variation 7  [0'41]
Variation 8  [0'58]
Variation 9  [0'40]
Variation 10  [0'43]
Variation 11  [0'44]
Variation 12  [0'41]
Variation 13  [0'41]
Variation 14  [1'20]
Variation 15  [4'50]
Finale alla Fuga  [4'43]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
From his modest ‘Dressler’ divisions of 1782, the enquiry of an eleven-year-old, to his stupendous ‘Diabelli’ cycle of 1823, the answer of a man into his fifties, Beethoven’s principal sets of variations for piano (twenty in all) span a creative period actually greater than that of the thirty-two sonatas. As much for their demonstration of an expanding compositional technique as for their sense of innovation (their progressive replacement, for instance, of the notion of a ‘theme’ by one of a ‘thematic unit’ – a germinally, permutationally richer conception), they stand patently as the finest examples of variation writing in the Classico-Romantic era. The Bach ‘Goldberg’ was their grand inheritance, the Brahms ‘Handel’ their monumental consequence.

Together with the F major Op 34 set, the Op 35 variations date from 1802, the year of the Op 30 violin sonatas and the second symphony, of the Heiligenstadt Testament. To his Leipzig publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, Beethoven wrote (18 October): ‘I have made two sets of variations … both are written in quite a new style and each in an entirely different way … you will never regret the two works. Each theme in them is treated independently and in a wholly different manner … I myself can assure you that in both works the style is completely new for me …’

Cast in the unusual form of an introduction, theme, fifteen variations and a fugue, the Op 35 cycle is based on a sixteen-bar binary theme from the finale of the ballet Prometheus (1800/1), a tune Beethoven used also for a Contradanse of the same period (WoO14 No 7), as well as of course, most celebratedly, for the finale of the later ‘Eroica’ Symphony (1803). In a manner anticipative of the ‘Diabelli’ Variations, he thinks of this idea essentially as a generating ‘thematic unit’. His preoccupation is with the totality of its profile. He is as much concerned with its harmonic underlay, its bass line, as with its melodic foreground – how melody and bass coexist as one and alternate as individuals. It is impossible to miss that predominantly the variations are about the melody, while the introduction (‘col Basso del Tema’, as Beethoven describes it) and the subject of the fugue a tre are about the bass. When both are united, as in the closing pages (a resumption of the slow variation before the fugue that Beethoven was to turn to again for the ‘Eroica’), the combined tension they generate can be simply enormous.

Op 35 is a singular masterpiece: an extraordinary composite of passacaglia, chaconne, variation, fugue, canon, dance, aria, fantasy … a towering edifice of pianistic bravura, of orchestral allusion, of vocal suggestion … a teasing study in the intercourse of modes major, minor and unisonal …

Composed in 1861, the ‘Handel’ Variations of Brahms – compositionally brilliant, imaginatively incandescent, pianistically colossal – were inspired by the playing of the Polish-Bohemian virtuoso and Liszt disciple Carl Tausig; Brahms originally intended to call them ‘studies for the piano’ (did he perhaps have Schumann’s finest variation work, the Études symphoniques, somewhere in the back of his mind?). Richard Specht, adjectivally among Brahm’s most Romantically-coloured early biographers, describes the ‘Handel’ Variations as an astonishing phenomenon, ‘which in their purely pianistic problems, in the powerful and healthy concision of variants resembling a series of portraits by old masters, in their sonority and their manifold architecture, surpass even the boldest of Beethoven’s works in this form. For all their contrasting diversity’, he says, ‘they make a single high-vaulted structure, crowned by a gigantic fugue flung out with a terrifying cyclopic force, one voice set over another and bursting out at the last into such desperate, reckless jubilance that one fancies oneself before a rushing mountain stream …’

In an essay written six years earlier in 1922, Tovey declared simply that ‘this work ranks with the half-dozen greatest sets of variations ever written … a rediscovery of the fundamental principles of the form … one of the greatest monuments of clearness and variety and … true freedom’. Objectively, scientifically, precisely, the modern analyst agrees.

For his theme Brahms turned to Handel’s Suites de pièces de clavecin (1733), principally the eight-bar binary air (with variations) from the first suite in B flat. The twenty-five variations that follow, almost all of which comply with the harmonic scheme and periodic structure of this air, take the form of an exhaustive and organic commentary. Between them, in a language compounded of diatonic simplicity no less than of chromatic sophistication, they essay a whole cosmos of event and emotion – from elements of Baroque practice, through Beethovenian cohesion, the Schumann ‘character variation’ type: from Italian siciliano, Magyar rhetoric, à la chasse pursuit, piano étude and operatic scena, to the charm of an old Biedermeier music box, to the thunder of stormy whirlwinds.

Classical in style (though, like Beethoven’s Op 35, not in number) are the minore variations (Nos 5, 6, 13 and 21 – the latter preserving the pitch outline of the theme but, after the model of the C minor sixth variation in the Beethoven, with a G minor harmonization). Romantic in spirit is the placement of the slower, or suggestively slower, variations. Baroque in manner is the application of counterpoint: first in the free linearity of Nos 2, 9 and 20, the canons of Nos 6 and 16, and the invertible technique of No 8; secondly, in the closing fugue (on a subject drawn directly from the theme) – a titanic, tonally-liberated, ‘Hammerklavier’-esque statement of the most splendidly royal climax.

The ‘Handel’ variations were first performed by Brahms himself, no mean pianist, at a concert in Vienna on 29 November 1861. Also in the programme was the G minor Piano Quartet, as well as music by Bach and Schumann, all executed, we are told, ‘as unconcernedly as though he were playing at home to friends’.

Ates Orga © 1989

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