Themes, Variations & Fugues

Brahms wrote the Handel Variations for his “beloved friend” Clara Schumann in 1861, when the young composer was just 28 and achieving complete mastery both of the piano and of large-scale forms.  For many people it is one of the half-dozen great sets of variations and still sometimes overlooked by those with their gaze fixed on Bach (Goldberg) or Beethoven (Diabelli or Eroica).  For me it has everything, while never departing very far from Handel’s deceptively simple theme. And, like many of the greatest sets of variations, it concludes with a mighty fugue.  My favourite recording is still Stephen Bishop/Kovacevic in his muscular pomp.  It is easy to close one’s eyes and imagine Brahms himself forcing extraordinary sounds from the piano.  Astonishingly, Brahms had to haggle with his publishers, Breitkopf & Härtel, to persuade them to publish the Variations, assuring them, correctly, that it was as good or better than anything he had previously written.  Breitkopfs got a bargain; Clara got a masterpiece.

If Stephen Bishop is too strong meat for you, Murray Perahia is possibly more nuanced (grown-up, even) and very fine.

Bishop on YouTube or buy online. You can watch Perahia on YouTube.  Perahia is readily available to download, but less easy to find on CD.

What do Brahms, Czerny, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sergei Rachmaninov and Melvyn Bragg have in common?  Simple: Paganini’s 24th Caprice.  Few pieces have been used so often as the theme for variations, and still it sounds fresh as a daisy.  Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody doesn’t have a fugue, but it has everything else one could want, including the utterly wonderful inversion of the theme in Variation 18, which would have been enough to ensure immortality for Rachmaninov on its own.  But he did write some other stuff which, lockdown persisting, we may visit another day.  The Paganini Rhapsody was written in 1934 and, like a number of Rachmaninov’s major works, features the doom-laden tones of the Dies Irae as well as the ecstatically joyous athleticism of the Paganini.   The conjunction is particularly happy in this work because, as Rachmaninov wrote in a letter to the choreographer Fokine, who asked in 1937 to be allowed to use the Rhapsody for a ballet about Paganini:

“I shall be very happy if you will do something about [my Rhapsody].  Last night I was thinking about a possible subject [for the ballet], and here is what came into my head. … Why not resurrect the legend about Paganini, who for perfection in his art and for a woman, sold his soul to an evil spirit?  All the variations which have the theme of the Dies Irae represent the evil spirit.”

They don’t make fiddle players like that any more ……  do they?

I don’t really know what to recommend here, there are so many.  If you have the time, do let me know which is your favourite, as I would love to hear it too.

Ashkenazy with Previn and the LSO in 1970, wonderfully luscious and a happy mix of Russia and Hollywood on YouTube.

And for another mix of Russia and Hollywood, but sounding rather different, here is Rachmaninov himself playing it, with Stokowski on YouTube.

And so to my favourite of all sets of Variations, Benjamin Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell aka A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.  It is a masterpiece on so many different levels.  First, taken simply as a set of variations, it is without peer in the orginality of how the composer treats the subject (including the fugue!).  Second, it demonstrates the characteristics of each instrument to perfection.  Third, it demonstrates originality of structure and mastery of orchestral technique to an unmatched degree. Listen, if you don’t believe me, to the variation for the Timpani in amongst the other percussion: clearly hitched to Henry Purcell’s great theme by simple ascending triads on the drums, thrillingly portentous with the threat of the tam-tam, and fitting perfectly into the overall structure.  Fourth, the fugue, with its two different time signatures so that the Brass bring in Henry Purcell’s great theme over an orchestra that is already going absolutely hell for leather, leading the last chord is like a starburst of clarity in a congested sky.  A bit like that monster firework that is now obligatory to end every public display of wanton extravagance.  Fifth, it was listening to this piece that made me take up the horn.  If you have children struggling with lockdown, perhaps you have a hornplayer, or a percussionist, or a plaintiff oboe who will be inspired like countless others before them.

Benjamin Britten’s own recording with the LSO is unbeatable.  I cannot find it on YouTube but it is available on all good streaming services.

Buy the CD on Amazon.

For a more cosmopolitan but also thrilling interpretation try the late lamented Mariss Jansons with his Bayerischen Runkfunks Orchestra streaming on Amazon.

On YouTube the best film/interpretation I can find is the Cologne Symphony with Sarasate.  Very well filmed (for the kids amongst us).

There is a typically polished performance by Rattle and Berliners for those wise souls who are now subscribing to their digital concerthall.

That’s it for this week.  Brahms, Rachmaninov, Britten, with a bit of devilry thrown in.  Yum yum!!!

by Jeremy Stuart-Smith