BRAHMS: 25 Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Handel. Theme & Variations in D min. 11 Variations on an Original Theme. 13 Variations on a Hungarian Song. Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books I & II. Variations on a Theme of Schumann. Piano Sonatas, Opp. 1, 2 & 5 / Carlo Grante, pno / Music & Arts Programs MA-1303
Carlo Grante is one of those pianists who has made a ton of recordings but who, for one reason or another, I hadn’t heard much of until now. This set covers the complete Brahms sonatas and variations for solo piano.
One thing I immediately liked about Grante’s playing was that he makes a differentiation in approach to Brahms’ original works and the variations he wrote based on the music of Handel, Paganini, Schumann and a Hungarian song, all of which require an entirely different approach to the rhythm. I would also add that they require a different approach to musical style and, much of the time, keyboard attack, since Brahms was, after all, inspired by the work of these earlier composers who wrote in a manner entirely different from his. Thus, in Grante’s skilled hands, the Handel and Paganini variations are light, brisk and airy without ignoring occasional moments of rubato to give his playing some interest, while Brahms’ original music is played with a richer tone, deep-in-the-keys touch and more Legato phrasing.
In addition to being appropriate for these various pieces, this diversity of approach also makes the listening experience more interesting. I also discovered certain moments in these scores that somehow escaped me in the past, i.e. some really nice moments of falling chromatics at one point in the Handel variations. In the music based on the Italian composer Paganini and the Italian music-influenced Handel, Grante plays like an Italian pianist, whereas in the other works he sounds much more like a German. Interestingly, the only surviving sound clip we have of Brahms himself playing the piano—crudely recorded on an amateur cylinder—shows him playing with a crisper touch and more direct phrasing than most of the German pianists of his time and a little later who did record his music, so my assumption is that Grante is on the right track.
Yet despite Grante’s excellent playing, I found the Variations in D minor, a somewhat early work (1860) based on his String Sextet No. 1, very dull music. This piece went nowhere, stayed nowhere, and almost made me feel embarrassed for Brahms having written it. The Variations on an Original Theme also wasn’t terribly interesting, but was surely an improvement. Grante played the famous Paganini variations a bit slower than I was used to, but not so much so that they dragged, and he took advantage of this slower tempo to make some interesting points in accent and phrasing.
Before going on with my review of Grante’s playing, a word from the peanut gallery (me) regarding a lot of this older music. Yes, it’s expertly crafted; yes, it’s tuneful and melodic; but it always seems to me that modern-day performers, who have a veritable mountain of more interesting and more complex modern works to choose from, always seem to go overboard in praising this stuff. British cellist Steven Isserlis, for example, thinks the Dvořák Cello Concerto is some kind of spiritual experience but won’t touch the superior cello concerti of Carrillo, Groslot, Hindemith, Lutosławski, Martin, Ranjbaran, Rautavaara, Augusta Read Thomas, Weinberg or Zimmermann. It is not. It is just a nice Romantic cello concerto that’s not too uninteresting in structure. And here, in Grante’s liner notes, we read all sorts of high-flown praise for this music that, although containing a germ of truth, is hyperbole, and not just about Brahms. Here are a couple of examples:
The composers of the Second Viennese School by no means abandoned structural solidity or inner coherence; their works were also conceived as organisms built on definite and recurring “cells,” musical units (pitch series, motives, rhythms, etc.) used throughout. In this respect, Mozart’s example was a difficult model to emulate, as he had achieved a balance between structural precision and linear, melodic inventiveness. He continually varied melodic elements, allowing his music to articulate itself freely but coherently, with the utmost logic, in a way that perhaps only Chopin was able to do with his personal, Romantic compositional language.
But of course, the difference is that Mozart and Chopin took forever and a day in their music to display this balance whereas Schoenberg, Berg and Webern cut to the chase and eliminated all of the pretty melodies and other goopy folderol that overflows Mozart’s and especially Chopin’s music.
The thematic development of the main theme of the first movement of Brahms’ [first] sonata (a compositional technique described by Walter Frisch in his seminal book Brahms and the Principle of Developing Variation) occurs as early as the transition section that joins the principal and subordinate thematic groups. This is a clear indicator of the thematische Arbeit practice, which favours motivic continuity to allow a sense of Fortspinnung (spinning forth) to permeate the movement. Siegfried Kross explains how themes in Brahms’ music draw from the idea of fortspinnung, in spite of the term’s more common associations with Baroque music.
Musically unsophisticated readers, not knowing much about the real nuts and bolts of composition, may well be impressed by this sort of double-talk, but the reality is that inverting musical lines, playing themes backwards (retrograde) and using “pivot points” within the chords of the harmony to shift tonality and thus add sudden surprising moments are things that have been done in music since at least the time Carlo Gesualdo wrote his madrigals in the 16th century. What many of the “Romantic” era composers really did was to elongate the time period between such moments, add pretty tunes to sugar-coat it, and pass these devices off as original. This is exactly the kind of writing about music that acamademics (yes, I purposely misspelled that) think is so cool because it gives them snob appeal and makes them sound like geniuses to the uninitiated.
Now, mind you, I’ve eventually come to like and admire Brahms as a composer, but it took me decades to do so because the few sophisticated touches in it are buried under a mountain of carefully-planned “filler” material. And that’s a fact, Jack. (By the way, Schumann was a different animal. His music, or at least 90% of it, is filled with such audacious and surprising leaps into strange territory that it grabs the listener and makes him or her forget that it was indeed through-composed and not improvised into being.)
I did, however, really like Brahms’ Second Sonata, a work with several more surprises in it and a less predictable route than the first. There seemed to me more real interest and innovation in the first two minutes of the first movement of this sonata than in the entire first movement of No. 1, and Grante brings all of this out in a way that he draws your attention to these surprising moments without over-exaggerating the music. Interestingly, the opening of the third movement almost sounds like something that Alkan would have written…and yes, that’s a compliment. (I’ve been an admirer of Alkan’s music long before I came to appreciate Brahms.) The Op. 5 sonata which closes this program is somewhat more ingenious than the Op. 1 but not as interesting as the Op. 2.
So there you have it. Clearly a worthwhile set, particularly for those of you who, like me, have some of these pieces in my collection but not all of them. Even ignoring the couple of weak works here, it’s definitely worth pursuing due to Grante’s exceptional pianism.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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