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Brahms: Handel Variationen; Walzer; Rhapsodien / Schirmer

Brahms / Schirmer
Release Date: 09/14/2010 
Label:  Berlin Classics   Catalog #: 16652   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Ragna Schirmer
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 4 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. 16 Waltzes, op. 39. 2 Rhapsodies, op. 79 Ragna Schirmer (pn) BERLIN 1665 (64:36)

Ragna Schirmer is new to me, but apparently not to a number of other Fanfare contributors, all of whom have been consistent in praising this young, award-winning German pianist. I’m surprised I haven’t encountered her before because she Read more has more than a dozen Berlin Classics recordings to her name, almost all of them in mainstream 18th- and 19th-century repertoire. This latest release is a follow-up to her disc of Handel’s keyboard suites, reviewed by Ron Salemi in Fanfare 33:3.

Longer than both books of the composer’s Paganini Variations combined, Brahms’s Handel Variations is arguably the greatest essay in variations technique since Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli. Donald Francis Tovey judged it among “the half-dozen greatest sets of variations ever written.” Brahms composed the work in 1861 and dedicated it to Clara Schumann.

Most biographers have been fascinated by the nature of the relationship that developed between Brahms and Clara after Robert’s death, rather than by what happened before. Brahms met the Schumanns in 1853 when he was just 20 years old. Without being reminded of the timeline, I think we tend to imagine that the deep friendship that evolved between the young composer and the elder Robert—he was 43 at the time, old enough to be Brahms’s father—must have gone on for years, but it didn’t. Robert died only three years later, in 1856, when Brahms was only 23. What could have possessed a 23-year-old to take on the burden, not just of looking out for Clara’s welfare, but of taking on the role of surrogate father to her children? It’s as if he made the decision at 23 to adopt the Schumann family as his own, realizing that he would never marry and father his own children. There is something I find very strange in that and, to me, it’s far more interesting than the whole Clara angle and whether Brahms saw her as mother or lover. At 23, he gave up his life for a man he’d known for only three years and for a family that wasn’t his.

Can it be as simple as a case of emotionally arrested development? And yet there’s nothing emotionally arrested about the music Brahms wrote. By the time he composed the Handel Variations at 28, he’d had five years to internalize all of this plus having numerous important compositions behind him. For all its complexities and technical difficulties, the work exhibits a sense of self-assured, transcendent, and ennobling mastery that shines through in Schirmer’s performance. I’m as impressed with her reading as I was with Cynthia Raim’s in 33:2.

The 16 Waltzes, op. 39, came four years later, in 1865. Originally written for piano duo (one piano, four hands), the pieces proved so popular that Brahms and his publisher decided to capitalize on a good thing. Thus, two years later the waltzes appeared in new editions, one of which was for solo piano as heard here. The waltzes, along with the Liebeslieder Waltzes and the Hungarian Dances, reflect Brahms’s folksier side, a side of him that was at home in Vienna’s cafés, coffee houses, and beer halls. While these waltzes may not be quite what the social director had in mind for the debutantes’ ball, they’re hardly unsophisticated barn dances for a Hooterville hoedown. Seven of the 16 are in minor keys, and fairly remote ones at that, like C?-Minor and G?-Minor; and they are suffused with a half-Schubert, half-Chopin bittersweet melancholy. Schirmer really probes their inner conflicts and tensions, making more of them than one often hears.

Fourteen years passed before Brahms wrote his twin Rhapsodies, op. 79. The first, in B Minor, is the longer of the two, but both project the feeling of grand-scale virtuosic works, even though their melodic and harmonic content are dark and foreboding. The secondary theme in the B-Minor Rhapsody is a clear portent of the composer’s style to come in the late sets of piano pieces. The G-Minor Rhapsody is a tightly structured sonata-allegro form that recalls, formally at least, some of Schubert’s impromptus; but the music, built unremittingly on Brahms’s much-loved rhythmic device, the triplet, is restless and uneasy. Schirmer’s readings of the rhapsodies are highly expressive and dramatic, as they should be.

This is a most excellent release. Ragna Schirmer has already proven herself an accomplished pianist. Here she proves herself a very strong Brahmsian as well. Definitely recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Variations and Fugue for Piano in B flat major on a theme by Handel, Op. 24 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Ragna Schirmer (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1861; Germany 
Venue:  Freylinghausensaal der Franckeschen Stif 
Waltzes (16) for Piano 4 hands, Op. 39 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Ragna Schirmer (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1865; Austria 
Venue:  Freylinghausensaal der Franckeschen Stif 
Length: 16 Minutes 19 Secs. 
Rhapsodies (2) for Piano, Op. 79 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Ragna Schirmer (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1879; Austria 
Venue:  Freylinghausensaal der Franckeschen Stif 
Length: 16 Minutes 24 Secs. 

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