Brahms' Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel has long been one of my favorite works by this composer and is, hands down, my favorite set of keyboard variations by anyone. What is more, I think it is one of the most pianistic works I know. There is an orchestration by Edmund Rubbra, which I have heard but have not been enraptured by – unlike the Schoenberg orchestration of Brahms Op. 25 Piano Quartet in G minor, and unlike the magnificent and moving Weingartner orchestration of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, both of which I love. Unfortunately there is no modern recording of the latter – Weingartner recorded it in 1930 – and I earnestly hope some conductor and recording company will take this up. (It should sell.)
There are of course many recordings available of Brahms' Handel Variations. Not all of them have appealed to me. For many years, my favorite performances have been those of Leon Fleisher and Eugene Istomin. The latter's performance was once recorded on Columbia ML5287 but is currently unavailable. Fleisher's 1956 monaural recording is available on another Sony release. Although the sound on that recording is not state-of-the-art, the performance is still gripping. Even with the sound of that in my ears, I like Perahia's performance – and in this recording we have a satisfying combination of an excellent performance and an excellent recording. The very nature of the variation form requires a display of a wide variety of expressive playing and I have no fault to find with anything Perahia does here. I am not about to discuss each of the variations, but I will say that Perahia brings out the strands of the final fugue clearly and brilliantly – as one might expect after his celebrated recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations.
The other pieces here consist of three rhapsodies (including one in Op. 119), seven intermezzi, a ballade and a romance. I am much less familiar with these pieces, but I can say that the rhapsodies (Agitato, Molto passionato, and Allegro risoluto) are convincingly rhapsodic; the romance is gentle; and the ballade is energetic, as called for. The intermezzi, varied in mood, key and tempo, are very satisfyingly played, to my ears and I am happy to have this collection.
Copyright © 2010, R. James Tobin