Book 1: Theme – Variations 1 to 14
Book 2: Theme – Variations 1 to 14
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