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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) 
CD 1
Variations on an Original Theme Op.21 No.1 (1860) [15:22]
Variations on a Hungarian Theme Op.21 No.2 [6:47]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op.24 [27:02]
Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op. 35 [12:40]
Variations on a Theme by Paganini Op. 35 [10:50]
CD 2
Variations on a Theme by Schumann Op.9 (piano solo) [16:28]
Variations on a Theme by Schumann Op.23 (piano duet) [16:18]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op.56b for two pianos [18:40]
André de Groote and Luc Devos (piano)
rec. dates and location not given.
TALENT DOM 3811 00+01 [63:05 + 51:44]

Experience Classicsonline

While Brahms’ piano variations are reasonably accessible on a variety of recordings, having them all in one place on a fine two disc set such as this is an attractive prospect. I would normally steer well clear of a ‘complete variations’ CD programme, but Brahms is always an exception. His very compositional technique is alive with variation, and you rarely hear the recurrence of a theme in exactly the same way, Brahms’ restless imagination always tinkering with his musical material and at the same time keeping everything interesting. Not all of the material in these pieces is Brahms’ best, but the level of quality is always high, and even where you have the feeling one sequence or another is beginning to outstay its welcome, there is always another sublime moment just around the corner.
CD 1 opens with the noble and restrained Variations on an original theme Op.21 no.1. Nicknamed the ‘philosophical’ variations, the musician’s own comments in the booklet notes no doubt accurately describe this set as “so intensely introvert that one could understand why they are not a favourite concert piece.” Nonetheless, in my opinion they bring out some of the best in Brahms’ qualities as an explorer of his material and the sonorities and harmonic potential it holds. The second of the Op.21 Variations on a Hungarian theme is more extrovert work, and its compact brilliance leads one to wonder why it is not played more often.
The ambitions of the Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel Op.24 are huge, and stand comparison with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and other works in this form such as Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which are known to have influenced Brahms’ way of thinking. There are numerous excellent performances of this piece around, but that on this disc is as good as any I can name and stands out as a highlight. The Variations on a theme by Paganini Op.35 appear twice here, there being sufficient differences between the solo and duet versions to justify both, though I wouldn’t personally have had them back to back on the programme. Clara Schumann dubbed these “Hexenvariationen”, and their technical bravura does reflect the supernatural aura presented by that particular violin virtuoso. Something funny happens in this recording with the duet version, the stereo picture opening out from a rather narrow stereo picture to a spacious one at 4:15.
CD 2 introduces us to the Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann Op.9, which uses a theme from the first of the Albumblätter from Schumann’s Op.99, the Bunte Blätter. Brahms’ emotional closeness to the Schumanns is well documented, and with Robert Schumann’s mental illness having already taken hold it is not hard to hear a sense of poignancy and grief in the music. Schumann was confined to the asylum in Endenich and isolated from his wife Clara, who could not bear to visit. Quotes from Schumann’s work are a feature throughout these variations, including among others the Impromptus on a theme by Clara Wieck. First we hear the solo piano variations Op.9, I assume played by André de Groote, though allocation of players is not given in the track listings or notes. The Variations on a theme by Schumann Op.23 for piano duet is an entirely different piece, written on the last theme Schumann was able to compose. Brahms’ treatment of Schumann’s flawed material is both a sensitive patching up of the music and an homage to his mentor and friend, but while there are some strange and frankly close to banal elements in the piece Brahms’ mature piano style is well in evidence and this is a worthwhile addition to the piano duet repertoire.
The Variations on a theme by Haydn Op.56b is justly one of Brahms’ most famous pieces in this genre. Originally conceived as an orchestral work, there is a point at which you might miss the additional colour and variety of texture in the full version. Brahms’ own version for two pianos is equally valid however, and is given a convincing and powerful performance by the two performers on this recording. As something of a reference work, this shows how the two pianists respond to the gentler phrasing and expression in some of the movements, and they are very good indeed. There are possibly some moments where the relative dryness of the recording helps less with the legato lines than one might prefer, but the energy in the faster movements has plenty of dynamism and drama.
If you are looking for a complete Brahms solo piano set then I confess a liking for the budget 6 disc survey played by Martin Jones on the Nimbus label, which will of course give you all but the duet and duo variations. With the excellent Haydn Variations as a supplement they can certainly exist happily together in any self-respecting collection. This is a well presented foldout package, the jugendstil artwork being by an intriguing contemporary artist by the name of Gabriel Meiring. As usual with the DOM label there are a few charming little errors in the booklet - the artist’s website address being one, so you are better off putting his name in a search engine. Brahms’ dates are also given as 1855-1899 on page 4 of the booklet, though correctly elsewhere. If I have one other criticism it is that each set of variations is given as a single track which may be a boon for downloading, but is less useful to those studying the music seriously. The ‘complete’ title is also arguable, though the addition of piano duet/duo editions of works such as the Academic Festival Overture and other orchestral favourites would bulk such a set into unrealistic box-set territory. These recordings are very good. There are one or two mildly twangy notes in the treble of one of the pianos, but nothing which should put anyone off adding this excellent set to their library.
Dominy Clements

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