Johannes Brahms

Variations (28) on a Theme of Paganini, for piano, in A minor, Op. 35

    Description by Steven Coburn

    With this set of pieces, Brahms placed himself squarely in the tradition of nineteenth century piano étude composition. His use of Paganini's Twenty-Fourth Caprice as inspiration is telling because both Liszt and Schumann had made arrangements of Paganini caprices for the purpose of piano studies. For Brahms, this was a political statement. First of all, the Caprice he chose to set had its own set of variations attached that Liszt had transcribed literally. But, by writing two new sets of Variations, Brahms set himself up as opposed to the virtuosic school represented by Liszt. Second, by choosing a Caprice that Schumann did not transcribe, by creating two separate books (Schumann's Paganini transcriptions were published as two separate sets), and by using the designation Studien (like Schumann) rather than Étuden (like Liszt) Brahms showed himself to be allied to both Schumann and a continuation of his aesthetic.

    The inspiration for the Paganini Variations came from lengthy conversations on piano technique with the great virtuoso Carl Tausig. Brahms jokingly referred to these Studies as his "finger exercises," but in fact, he created a unique and formidably difficult style of piano playing that he never again approached in his pianistic output. From the technical standpoint, the principal problems are those of double-note technique and rhythm. Brahms seemed less interested in fluent finger work than in complex arpeggiations and difficult chord configurations. In a way, Brahms technique is more a technique of the wrist, arm, and back than of the fingers. Musically, the principal problem arises in the division into two books. Both sets begin with a statement of the theme and have full-blown Finales. Also, both sets are similar enough in organization and style to become musically (if not technically) monotonous when played back-to-back. Unfortunately the best of the Studies are strewn between the books; therefore, a performance of one or the other inevitably leaves out some of the most interesting material. There is no clear-cut solution to this dilemma, and most pianists simply play both books, eliminating the statement of the theme for Book II. These two books of variations are neither as complex nor sophisticated as the Handel or Schumann Variations, but are still magnificent creations, and create an idiomatically Brahmsian piano style that has never been surpassed in difficulty or originality.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Theme. Non troppo presto
    2. Variation 1
    3. Variation 2
    4. Variation 3
    5. Variation 4
    6. Variation 5. Espressivo- Molto leggiero
    7. Variation 6. Molto leggiero
    8. Variation 7
    9. Variation 8. Staccato
    10. Variation 9. Legato
    11. Variation 10. Sotto voce
    12. Variation 11. Andante, molto legato e dolce, espressivo
    13. Variation 12. Molto dolce
    14. Variation 13. Vivace e scherzando
    15. Variation 14. Ben marcato, con fuoco - Presto, ma non troppo
    16. Variation 1
    17. Variation 2. Poco animato, poco forte espressivo, legato
    18. Variation 3. Leggiero, espressivo
    19. Variation 4. Poco allegretto, con grazia
    20. Variation 5. Dolce
    21. Variation 6. Poco più vivace, leggiero
    22. Variation 7. Leggiero e ben marcato
    23. Variation 8. Allegro, leggiero, quasi pizzicato
    24. Variation 9
    25. Variation 10. Feroce, energico
    26. Variation 11. Vivace, non legato e scherzando
    27. Variation 12. Un poco andante, dolce espressivo
    28. Variation 13. Un poco più andante, poco espressivo
    29. Variation 14. Presto, ma non troppo, scherzando

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Menuetto Classics
    2017 MDG MDG 9042047
    2017 ICA Classics ICAB 5141
    2017 BIS BIS 2137
    2017 Erato 0190295869212
    2016 La Dolce Volta LDV 1705
    2016 MDG MDG 9041974
    2016 Claudio / Claudio Records CR 60342
    2016 Praga / Praga Digitals PRD 250338
    2016 Piano Classics PCLM 0104
    2015 Praga DSD 350095
    2015 Piano Classics PCL 0086
    2015 Chandos CHAN 10878
    2015 RCA Red Seal / Sony Classical 88875127202
    2015 APR (Appian) APR 7701
    2014 IBA [Idil Biret Archives] 8571303-04
    2014 Centaur Records CRC 3367
    2014 Telos Music TLS 195
    2014 Ondine ODE 12302D
    2013 United Classics T2CD 2013018
    2013 IBA [Idil Biret Archives] 8571295
    2013 RCA Red Seal / Sony Classical 88725462392
    2012 Signum Classics SIGCD 309
    2012 Colosseum / Zebralution
    2012 Tacet TACET 197
    2011 Talent DOM 381100/01
    2011 Mirare 132
    2011 Parnassus Records PACD 960512
    2010 Quartz 2071
    2010 Brilliant Classics 94091
    2010 Hyperion 67777
    2010 Denon Records
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon 14108
    2010 Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 TwoPianists 103902
    2009 Oehms Classics 732
    2009 Deutsche Grammophon 477 818-3
    2009 Oehms Classics 586
    2009 Thorofon Classics / Zebralution
    2009 Thorofon Classics / Zebralution
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 Denon Records
    2009 EMI Classics 13251
    2009 Landor Records 286
    2009 Pentatone Classics 5186170
    2008 Brilliant Classics 93554
    2008 Document 231661
    2008 Archipel / Archipel Records 0376
    2007 Haenssler Classic 98770
    2007 Idis 6503/04
    2007 Orfeo 720071
    2007 Urania 4259
    2007 Harmonia Mundi 907392
    2007 Dynamic 544
    2007 Decca 4758628
    2007 Decca
    2007 Doremi Records 7882
    2007 Brilliant 93180
    2007 Classical Records 11
    2006 VAI Audio 1256
    2006 Altara Music 1007
    2006 Virgin Classics
    2006 Virgin 32628
    2006 Decca 4757221
    2006 Decca
    2006 Vanguard 1657
    2006 Edel Records 2822
    2005 EMI Music Distribution 64490
    2005 RCA Red Seal 67887
    2005 Brilliant Classics 92512
    2005 Brilliant 92550
    2005 Brilliant 92182
    2005 Edel Classics 2772
    2005 Andromeda 5019
    2005 EMI Classics
    2005 Harmonia Mundi 907404
    2004 Vanguard 1491
    2004 Brilliant 92392
    2004 EMI Classics 75230
    2004 Dynamic 441/1-2
    2004 Gega 288
    2003 Eroica Distribution 3110
    2003 BBC Legends / BBC Music 41352
    2003 Philips 475024
    2003 Naxos 8110699
    2003 VAI Audio 1209
    2002 Ivory Records IC72008
    2001 Azica Records 71214
    2001 Pearl 0102
    2001 Nimbus 1739
    2000 Naxos 8501201
    2000 Aura Classics 2000
    1999 Philips 456904
    1999 London 444338
    1999 Astree Auvidis 8754
    1999 Vanguard 118
    1999 Philips 462232
    1999 Philips 454987
    1999 EMI Music Distribution 67018
    1999 Nimbus 1748
    1998 RCA 902668910
    1998 Philips 456706
    1998 Cembal d'amour 99
    1997 Biddulph Recordings 018
    1997 Eclipse Records 64355
    1997 Koch Discover International 920423
    1997 Point Classics 267155
    1997 EMI Music Distribution 566421-2
    1997 Decca
    1997 London 455347
    1996 Deutsche Grammophon 449 623-2GJB9
    1996 Decca 4523382
    1996 Testament 1068
    1996 Thorofon CTH 2332
    1995 Nimbus 1788
    1995 Philips
    1995 Philips 442 589-2PM2
    1995 Globe Records 5096
    1995 APR (Appian) 7024
    1995 Elan Recordings 2200
    1995 Nimbus 7706
    1994 Symposium 1092
    1994 Naxos 550350
    1994 Vox 3020
    1994 Philips 442464
    1994 Philips 438 477-2PH3
    1994 Arabesque 6654
    1992 EMI Music Distribution 67366
    1991 Erato 45477
    1991 Astree 8754
    Divox 25219
    Art Voice 4895
    Arkadia 903
    Aca Digital 20099
    Eurodisc 69245
    The Piano Library 213
    Eurodisc 69249
    Teldec 46450
    Brilliant Classics 93554/28
    Brilliant 92182/3
    Brilliant 92392/39
    Brilliant 93180/6
    Supraphon 111844
    London 430053
    Pearl GEMMCD9916
    Aura Music 206
    Accord 201152
    Berlin Classics 0090322
    Vox 9004
    Di Wu
    Denon Records 18019
    Connoisseur Society 4177
    Ondine 777
    Russian Compact Disc (RCD) 16209
    Nimbus 5020