BRAHMS: Piano Works Vol. 5 = Variations for solo piano ‒ Hardy Rittner, piano ‒ MDG

BRAHMS: Piano Works Vol. 5 = Variations Op. 21, Nos. 1 and 2; Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24; Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35, Volumes 1 and 2 ‒ Hardy Rittner, piano ‒ Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MD&G), multichannel SACD MDG 904 1974-6 (2+2+2), 73:19 [Distr. by E1] (12/2/16) ****

A satisfying survey of Brahms’s variations for solo piano, performed on a great contemporary instrument.

Like the Classical masters he revered and emulated, Brahms was a master builder of variations. Two of his greatest works conclude with a variations-form movement, the Clarinet Quintet and the Fourth Symphony, whose finale is a passacaglia featuring thirty variations on a theme derived from Bach. For his own instrument, Brahms crafted two of the finest nineteenth-century sets of variations: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel and the two-piano version of Variations on a Theme of Haydn. As with so many composer-pianists, he found Paganini’s Twenty-Fourth Capriccio an irresistible vehicle for variations. And like his friend and supporter Robert Schumann, Brahms cast his Paganini Variations as a series of etudes for piano. Schumann wrote six etudes; Brahms was ambitious enough to produce two sets of these variation-etudes, fourteen variations in each set.

The notes to this recording somewhat dubiously state that “They have surpassed the Handel Variations in popularity. . . .” but then add some interesting observations on the Paganini Variations’ early progress in musical circles. Apparently, both Clara Schumann and one of Brahms’s greatest critical allies, Eduard Hanslick, had reservations about the Paganini Variations, Hanslick going so far as to say, “they do not seem to me to be suitable for public performance; the combinations are too surprising, for the amateur at first unenjoyable.” Well, I suppose music lovers have come increasingly to enjoy surprises, because you’ll often hear these variations in recital today. All a pianist needs to play them is an iron-clad technique (Brahms’s contemporaries referred to the piece as the Hexenvariationen­“Witchcraft Variations”), which Hardy Rittner certainly has.

I haven’t followed the entire series of Brahms’s piano works from Rittner, but of the issues I’ve sampled, Volume 5 strikes me as the most successful. And here, Rittner employs one of the best period-authentic pianos in the series, a Steinway & Sons instrument from around 1860, exactly contemporary with the Handel Variations. The notes on the instrument tell us it belonged to the series of “First Overstrung Grand Scale” pianos, a series produced from 1858 (just five years after the firm was founded) to 1865. Fittingly, the piano Rittner plays was not built at the New York Steinway factory but in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, by Christian Steinweg, the oldest Steinway brother. This piano makes a mighty sound, fully worthy of Brahms’s grand-scale, virtuoso works.

Rittner and his Steinway even manage to make Brahms’s two lesser efforts from Op. 21Variations on an Original Theme and Variations on a Hungarian Song—sound more important than they really are, even though Brahms would do Hungarian/Gypsy music so much better in his later career. As for the grand Handel Variations, Rittner plays them with steely-fingered virtuosity that never flags, a rousing performance. Brahms took as his subject a theme from Handel’s Suite in E Major, HWV 430, popularly known as “The Harmonious Blacksmith.” Handel himself subjected his theme to five well-behaved little variations, but Brahms spins no fewer than twenty-five, then caps them with a monumental fugue that’s more Beethovenian than Handelian. Rittner causes us to take note of Brahms’s resourcefulness, as well as monumentality, in this great work. MDG’s typically fine SACD piano recording completes a package that should appeal to all confirmed Brahmsians.

—Lee Passarella

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