Etudes pour piano Vol. V = BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35; Chaconne in D Minor on Johann Sebastian Bach; Presto after Johann Sebastian Bach; Impromptu in E-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 2 from Franz Schubert; Etude in F Minor after Frederic Chopin; Rondo in C Major after Carl Maria von Weber – Erika Haase, piano – Tacet 197, 62:53 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
German pianist and pedagogue Erika Haase (b. 1935) continues her own exploration of the “variation principle” here in the music of Johannes Brahms, who in his 1865 Paganini Variations produced a virtuoso work that could compete with the likes of Liszt etudes (and his own adoration of the violin demon Paganini) while indulging his more “academic” capacities as a thinker of intricate metrical/rhythmic complexities. The more Brahms proceeded into the labyrinths of melody and tonality, the more he responded to the contrapuntal mysteries in Bach, both in his Chaconne from the D Minor Violin Partita and the Goldberg Variations, especially its 15th variation that inverts and crosses the independent melodic lines. The possibilities for the left and right hand to assume equality of expression and virtuosity appeal to Brahms, and so a “mirror” relationship or technical style evolves, by which he can replace or alternate any musical line into treble or bass at will. Thus, Brahms mastered the old problem of unity-in-variety, or the compositional challenge of having created double etudes making equal demands on both hands at once. The Brahms metric experimentation, moreover, adumbrates the polyrhythmic structures favored by later composers Bartok, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Boulez.
Erika Haase (rec. 2012) plays a Steinway D with a hard patina, but she coaxes variegated colors from her instrument. Punishing stretches and askew syncopes she handles with clarity and metric precision. The close association with Schumann’s Op. 13 and his two sets of Paganini studies becomes abundantly obvious. The use of the ground bass idea as a connecting link in the progression of variants in two books transcends Schumann’s fixation on melodic variety. Brahms has already begun to lay the harmonic   groundwork for his larger variation forms in the Op. 56 Haydn group and his finale to the Fourth Symphony. The finger spans and interval groups look even to Liszt’s own Six Grandes Etudes de Paganini, vehicles based on the A Minor Caprice to display academic and digital prowess. Haase provides a lovely musette in Variations 11-12 of Book I, a delicate oasis in the midst of otherwise thick aggression. The next Variation 13 indulges Hungarian slides and some wry humor, a jab at Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies. Combining Paganini’s bariolage with Bach’s polyphony, Brahms synthesizes two distinct world views in his gripping conclusion to Book I, made expansively heroic by Haase.
Haase interrupts the Paganini studies with the most audacious of Five Studies (c. 1877), the transcription of the Bach Chaconne for the left hand. The violin part is transposed down an octave, and the left hand imitates the violin original except for keyboard’s dynamics and individual rubato. Haase manages to create the illusion of a flowing parlando, ostinato, legato, stretto, or polyphonic line, according to the evolving progression that exploits the same bass pattern. To conceive this daunting exercise as “relief” from the main course of studies seems ironical, indeed.
Book II of the Paganini Variations resumes with the same poignant dexterity the First: perhaps Book II proves the more audacious. The off-beat exercises demand wide spans and juxtapose daunting metrics, like 2/4 against 3/8. The fourth variation plays like a slightly tipsy waltz that might have inspired Kurt Weill. The ensuing variation mocks Schubert and Schumann, then Brahms clearly challenges Liszt to imitate Paganini’s jostling violin style. The darker side of Brahms emerges in Variations 9-10, dialogues that indulge sonorous bass chords, the latter of which Haase takes marcato for added pungency. A scherzando follows that leads directly into glowing F Major for immediate contrast, Un poco Andante that might have provided a symphonic poem. A study in contrary motion, No. 13 looks to Bach and Schumann. The finale No. 14 begins with glittering jewels of sound from Haase, the layered style increasing with allusions to Paganini’s original until the broken passagework assumes a grand might of its own.
Haase concludes the disc with the remainder of the Five Studies that Brahms had begun in 1852. Her first is the study (1877) based on Bach’s Presto from the G Minor Solo Violin Sonata. Brahms places two adaptations in tandem, each accorded to the two hands, respectively. The allusions to techniques in the Goldbergs becomes apparent as the voices cross, invert, and align. Schubert’s E-flat Impromptu becomes a left-hand study of dubious authenticity, published first in 1927. That the grueling tessitura and registration adjustments challenge equivalent studies by Leopold Godowsky soon becomes apparent, whoever the author. A bit metronomic, this study, but fascinating in its own way. In 1862 Brahms wrote a study based on Chopin’s F Minor Etude, Op. 25, No. 2. Set in double notes, the piece now demands thirds and sixths slowed down to accommodate their intricacy. The Chopin, along with the Weber study, both published in 1869, Brahms referred to them as “piano jokes.” While a piano student of Eduard Marxsen, Brahms wrote his study on Weber’s 1812 Rondo. The moto perpetuo becomes the melodic property of the left hand while the right plays unceasing sixteenths. Bubbly and even a bit drunken, the piece projects an ungainly beauty whose syncopations exert a rustic charm. Haase makes us glad Brahms finally released it to a publisher after it had lain neglected in his desk drawer for several years. Kudos to Frau Professor Haase for her mastery of many notes.
—Gary Lemco