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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: 24 minutes 11 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' (

Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op 35
Studien für Pianoforte; 'Hexenvariationen'; dedicated to Carl Tausig; the theme is from Paganini's Caprice for solo violin No 24 in A minor

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Given that the Handel Variations is such a musical manifesto for traditional values in composition, it is surprising that Brahms’s next variation-work, on the most famous of all themes by Paganini, should prove to be a bravura display of pyrotechnic virtuosity, as practised by the keyboard lions of the ‘New German School’. Liszt (whose compositional principles and powers Brahms profoundly distrusted) was the prime exponent of that style; but among those next in rank was one of Liszt’s favourite young pupils, Carl Tausig (1841–1871), whom Brahms first met in Vienna during the winter of 1862–3. They became good friends, played together as duet-partners and in 1864 gave the first public performance of Brahms’s Sonata for Two Pianos Op 34b. It was to Tausig that Brahms now dedicated his two books of Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op 35—as if to demonstrate that he was as much a master of the new style of piano-writing as of the old.

Brahms’s friends often referred to the result as the Hexenvariationen (Witchcraft Variations). ‘Variations on a theme by Paganini’ is in fact only Op 35’s subtitle. The main title, as if to emphasize its exploration of the technical aspects of keyboard virtuosity, is Studien für Pianoforte; and Brahms organized it in two complementary books, each of which contains the theme (from Paganini’s famous Caprice No 24 in A minor for solo violin), plus fourteen variations and a coda. The choice of theme is itself a direct challenge to Liszt, who had produced his own virtuoso recomposition of this Caprice in his Grandes études de Paganini (1838, revised 1851). Since Brahms’s time, many other composers have done their best or worst in variations on this theme, among them Rachmaninov, Lutoslawski, Boris Blacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The simplicity and clarity of the theme’s harmonic skeleton seems to afford each new composer almost unlimited scope for the imposition of his own personality.

Brahms’s variations open up a whole world of interpretative challenges, and take technical problems as the point of departure for expressive recreation. They include studies in double sixths, double thirds, huge leaps between the hands or with one hand. There are trills at the top of wide-spread chords, polyrhythms between the parts, octave studies, octave tremolos. Other variations explore staccato accompaniments against legato phrasing, glissandi, rapid contrary motion, and swooping arpeggios against held notes. During many of the variations the figuration is systematically transferred from right hand to left, and vice-versa. Not that each variation confines itself to one technical feature; several may be combined and in both books the final variation is welded to an extended three-part coda, covering an even larger range of difficult techniques and bringing each book to an end in scintillating style.

Generally speaking, in Book I the focus is on bravura writing. Technical demands occupy the music’s foreground, leaving scant space for Brahms’s habitual melodic developments; nevertheless, the delicate arabesques of the major-key variation 12, and the Hungarian accents of No 13, with its ‘gypsy’ glissandi, are delightful. Book II is somewhat gentler in character, with compositional virtues more predominant. The dreamy waltz of variation 4, the skittish arpeggios of No 6 with its ‘demonic’ crushed semitones, the ‘violinistic’ No 8 with its pizzicato effects, the cool nocturne of No 12 (the only variation in either book that strays from the orbit of A minor/major, into F), and the gently cascading thirds of No 13—these all combine to make Book II the more satisfying from a purely musical standpoint. Taken as a whole, however, the Paganini Variations is a stunning demonstration of Brahms’s compositional skills.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010

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