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