Classical Reissue Reviews

BRAHMS: Handel Variations; Variations on an Original Theme; DVORAK: Theme with Variations – Todd Crow, p. – MSR Classics

Volume 2 of Crow’s BBC outing proves an exceptional foray into the music of Brahms and Dvorak.

Published on December 3, 2013

BRAHMS: Handel Variations, Op. 24; Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21/1; DVORAK: Theme with Variations, Op. 36 – Todd Crow, piano – MSR Classics MS 1487, 57:22 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

This recording, volume 2 of the “BBC Recordings” Crow made in the 1990s, is simply captivating. From an editing standpoint alone, little was done to the recording at all, resulting in the spontaneous feeling of a live recording while offering fine, detailed, and warm sonics to boot. Crow, currently Professor of Music at Vassar College, is a bit of an under-the-radar fan favorite, and any track on this disc shows why.

The Dvorak is not often played, and the composer wrote very little for piano, being only a competent player. And this work was not exactly greeted with flowers and a parade either, many considering it lukewarm in construction and too involved thematically to make for good variation material. It is one of the most elaborate melodies you will ever hear in use as a theme—though Bach certainly has his share—but even though Dvorak is not Bach it is truly a marvel how he handles the thing, beautifully constructed, highly Slavic in tone, and immediately gratifying. Crow pours a lot of passion into the work and it comes across very well.

When we speak of Brahms we speak of one of the greatest variation writers in the history of music, and these two pieces, one early and one seminal, are a veritable crash course in how to do it. The Variations on an Original Theme was initially composed in tandem with the other opus 21 piece, the Variations on a Hungarian Theme, but friend and violinist Joseph Joachim convinced Brahms that the piece was not ready yet, and Brahms took this advice and held off for five years, eventually naming both sets as one opus number. The melody is a beautiful one, though the composer probably thought more of it then than we do now; nonetheless, the piece is one of the most underperformed of the variation sets, though with Brahms that is relative—they are still recorded quite a bit, and Crow’s has to rank with the best.

As does his Handel Variations. This is the pinnacle of Brahms’s work in the genre, and he was also a huge Handel fan, editing his works, and using a theme itself the subject of variations from the Suite in B-flat for harpsichord. With all due respect to the Baroque composer, Brahms tops him in nearly every way. Handel’s keyboard music was hardly his most profound, nowhere near what Bach accomplished, and the originality and profundity of Brahms’s piece has captivated listeners for ages. Crow knows this, and doesn’t care—he’s not out for novelty or effect, but simply presenting the music through a lens that sees Brahms as someone spirited and passionate, and who milks the keyboard for every ounce of technical and tonal effect in this challenging work.

If I still need to say it, this is one fine disc.

—Steven Ritter

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