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VARIATIONS. Schumann Impromptus Op 5; Beethoven Variations; Schubert Variations (world première recording); Ghost Variations. Brahms Variation on a theme of Schumann Andreas Boyde (piano)   ATH CD23 [DDD] [67' 16"].

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This is an important disc as it includes the world première recording of Robert Schumann's Variations on a theme of Schubert reconstructed from manuscripts by the pianist on this recording, Andreas Boyde.

The love story of Schumann and Clara Wieck is one of the most fascinating in the history of music. Not only does it have the lovers themselves but a villain in Clara's father and this story possesses the question as to whether Schumann's mental illness has one of its sources in the shabby way his future father-in-law treated him as well as his own personal sensitivity and profound love for Clara. The added ingredient of another man being in love with Clara, yet remaining honourable to his friend Schumann, adds to the intrigue. The second man was the great Johannes Brahms.

Schumann fell in love with many women and his piano music is often semi-concealed portraits of them. In his interesting booklet to this disc Andreas Boyde puts forward Schumann's fondness for the music of Schubert. While I would instinctively wish to refute this I must admit that there are a few similarities. Fortunately, Schumann was not the despicable libertine that Schubert was whose regular frequenting of brothels and his out of control libido resulting in his suffering and eventually dying of syphilis. This makes something of a mockery of the lament that Schubert died so young.

The Impromptus Op 5 are variations on a theme by Clara Wieck. It is young man's music and dependant on the great Beethoven and, in particular, the Eroica Variations, Op 35. The Impromptus clearly have 'two voices' those of Robert and Clara themselves. There are moments of romance, passion and frenzy but, as with much of Schumann's work, it is episodic as if it is a set of miniatures stuck together.

The Variations on a theme of Beethoven were also composed in 1833 and takes as its theme the melody from the second movement of Beethoven's magnificent Symphony No 7 in A, Op 92. This set of variations is untrammelled by the unsolved romance of Robert and Clara and, consequently, fares better. It is a very fine piece and hugely enjoyable even if the final minutes are gloomy.

It was another of Schumann's falling in love with a woman that led to his interest in Schubert. Agnes Canus, the woman in question, liked Schubert's music and in order to get close to her, Robert emulated that admiration. He studied Schubert's Waltzes. The theme is a typically trite one and therefore the variations are not of any great purport.

The Variations on An Original Theme, known as the Ghost Variations are far more interesting. They were written at the end of Schumann's short and tragic life and when he was hearing voices of both angels and demons in his increasing schizophrenia. The theme has a definite religious feel and for someone so mentally tortured there is an uncanny peace and resignation in this beautifully crafted work.

Clara did not want this work published. Brahms, respecting her wishes, composed his own Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann Op 23 for four hands using the theme from the Ghost Variations. Here, Andreas Boyde plays Theodor Kirchner's version for one pianist.

The work is a sincere and long tribute by Brahms to his friend. He was later to refer to the Ghost Variations as Schumann's friendly farewell.

Brahms' work is a labour of love and not only for Robert but for Clara whom he also adored. This tells us much about Brahms both as a man and as a human being and how very different he was from, say, Schubert.

Brahms' music is superior to that of both Schubert and Schumann and his use of the variation medium is masterly. Perhaps his music is more masculine and exciting as opposed to being effeminate and dreamy.

Boyde is a fine player. We have heard his virtuosic power in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 2 (ATH CD 16) and Ravel's Miroirs (ATH CD 17) but he has a remarkable gift for sensitivity as well as shown in this disc. He has a tremendous insight and the Brahms performance gives a rare satisfaction.


David Wright




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David Wright



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