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Hyperion Records

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Rainy Weather on the Elbe (1902) by Max Liebermann (1847-1935)
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67777
Recording details: December 2009
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 7 minutes 26 seconds

'Ohlsson's playing not only persuaded me to appreciate the two Op 21 works but actually to listen to both discs all the way through in a single sitting. He is that good … this is a great Brahms recording that elevates and illuminates the music with a lightness of touch and heart that eludes many (yet he can darken the tone when required) … [Paganini Variations] perhaps the most musical performance on disc in recent years' (Gramophone)

'An authoritative new collection of all six Brahms essays in theme-and-variations composition … he's a born Brahmsian, equipped at the highest level with the necessary speed and power, the muscular strength and facility of finger tempered by breadth of outlook and solidity of intellect … Ohlsson's new Brahms conspectus adds up to an altogether remarkable achievement' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Ohlsson's muscular performance does not ignore the yearning that lies beneath the surface' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Garrick Ohlsson has the technical resources to tackle the particular challenges that Brahms attached to Paganini's famous theme' (The Irish Times)

'Ohlsson’s many musical insights and his magnificent technical skills make this a release demanding to be heard' (ClassicalSource.com)

Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op 21 No 2
composer
1853; published in 1861

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In the years following the composition of his three sonatas in 1851–4, Brahms concentrated his piano output on sets of variations and groups of shorter pieces—and the first representatives of those genres are already powerful indications of his mastery in these smaller forms. The art of variation was one that he had absorbed very early, partly perhaps from his piano teacher Eduard Marxsen, who himself composed many works in variation form, and he came to consider himself something of a connoisseur of variation technique.

Apart from the brief sets of variations on folksongs which constitute the slow movements of his first two piano sonatas, the earliest (and simplest) of Brahms’s existing sets of piano variations is the Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op 21 No 2, composed in 1853 but only published eight years later. The work is based on a rugged eight-bar melody, rhythmically enlivened by its alternating bars of 3/4 and 4/4, which Brahms probably derived from his Hungarian violinist-friend Ede Reményi during their concert tour together in the spring of that year.

There are thirteen variations in all, plus a finale: the obstacle to variation posed by the tune’s rhythmic asymmetry was perhaps what attracted Brahms in the first place. His first eight variations retain its metrical irregularity, and the theme remains throughout as a kind of cantus firmus, though often subtly transformed—as in the ‘gypsy’ colouring of variation 5, whose repeated notes and rhythmic hesitations evoke the sonority of the cimbalom and also (perhaps only from similarity of inspiration) passages in the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt. From the ninth variation onward Brahms standardizes the metre to two beats in the bar, though he keeps the eight-bar structure. However the last variation finally breaks free of these confines and develops into an extended and increasingly brilliant finale at doubled speed. This entails further variations, and culminates in a triumphant restatement of the Hungarian theme.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010

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