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Brahms: Variations / Terhi Dostal

Brahms / Dostal
Release Date: 08/30/2011 
Label:  Siba Records   Catalog #: 1006   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Terhi Dostal
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 10 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Schumann. Variations on an Original Theme. Variations on a Hungarian Song. Variations on a Theme by Handel Terhi Dostal (pn) SIBA 1006 (70:08)

Finnish pianist Terhi Dostal, for all her youthful appearance, has already made quite a name for herself, debuting in concert with the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg under Valery Gergiev, and performing throughout Europe and the U.S. She received her Ph.D. from the Sibelius Academy in 2010; her doctoral dissertation was on the Read more literary predilections of the young Brahms, and she has devoted herself to the composer, performing his complete solo piano works in recital, and presenting multimedia lectures on his music.

Recordings of all but one of Brahms’s variation works for solo piano on a single CD are not rare. To name just three whose accounts have been reviewed in earlier issues, there are David Korevaar, Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy, and Andreas Boyde. The problem is that in whatever way they’re combined, all of the variations works won’t fit onto a single disc. So, the pianist must eliminate one or another. Garrick Ohlsson, in his recent survey for Hyperion (see Fanfare 34:5) included them all, even the transcription Brahms made for Clara Schumann of the variations movement from his op. 18 String Sextet, but Ohlsson’s effort required a second CD.

Dostal’s choice in this, what appears to be, as far as I can tell, her debut album, is to leave the Paganini Variations for another day. It has always been a bit of mystery to my why Brahms’s op. 9 Variations on a Theme by Schumann doesn’t occupy as exalted a place in the composer’s canon as do his Paganini and Handel works. For one thing, at more than 18 minutes in length, it’s certainly no trifle. But beyond its duration, it demonstrates the 21-year-old composer’s masterly grasp of variation technique in music of heartbreaking tenderness. The work should not be confused, by the way, with the later op. 23 Variations on a Theme by Schumann for piano four-hands, which Brahms wrote in 1861 for Julie Schumann, Robert and Clara’s daughter. That piece is based on Schumann’s 1854 Letzter Gedanke (Last Thought), on which he’d intended to compose his own variations just before attempting suicide and being transferred to the mental asylum where he died two years later.

Brahms’s op. 9 is based on a theme from Schumann’s Bunte Blãtter , written that same year, just four months after Schumann’s breakdown, and it was intended as a touching tribute by Brahms to the composer he’d met and known for only a year, and as a gesture of compassion for Schumann’s wife, Clara, to whom he would devote so much affection in the years to come. Much has been written exploring Brahms’s relationship with Clara, but nothing I’ve read has yet to probe the peculiarity of so strong a bond that formed so quickly in a young man barely past boyhood for a family not his own, and the suppression or internalization of libido in an otherwise healthy young male (Brahms was only 21 at the time) who should have been chasing after girls his own age.

Virtuosic variations come and go throughout the work, but the overall mood of the piece is dark, sober, melancholic, and in a number of places uncannily suggestive of Schumann’s own style.

The Variations on an Original Theme and the Variations on a Hungarian Song share an opus number only by dint of publication. They were neither written together nor intended as a wedded pair. If they were, it would be a marriage between Godzilla and Tinker Bell. The Variations on an Original Theme at 16 and a half minutes dominates the six-and-a-half-minute Variations on a Hungarian Song. Frankly, neither work is on a par with Brahms’s other variation works.

In contrast, the Variations on a Theme by Handel is arguably the composer’s masterpiece in the genre for solo piano. Approaching 30 minutes in duration, it’s certainly the longest, exceeding in length Books 1 and 2 of the Paganini Variations combined.

I always feel a little badly for the reader when in past reviews I’ve waxed ecstatic over one recording or another, only to be confronted by a new one that calls for an even more urgent must-buy recommendation. Unfortunately, if you bought the earlier one on my advice, you can’t return it on the basis of a more recent review claiming this new version is even better. But say it I must: This new disc by Terhi Dostal is without a doubt the most satisfying Brahms recording I’ve yet to lay ears on. As warmly as I’ve received recent releases by Cynthia Raim, Nicholas Angelich, Garrick Ohlsson, Murray Perahia, and Adam Laloum, Dostal plays Brahms as if the composer’s spirit inhabits her body and soul.

Soft passages are of feathery lightness and delicacy, loud passages are of visceral amplitude and force, and passages of virtuosic fireworks flash like bursts of diadems lighting the night sky. Dostal’s playing is no less amazing for its technical execution than it is for the sense of oneness with the composer it seems to impart to the music. It’s almost as if she has a direct line of communication to Brahms as he guides and informs her every move.

The recording should be credited too for pristine sound in the apparently ideal acoustic setting of Helsinki’s Sibelius-Academy Concert Hall. The Finnish label Siba Records is one I’ve not heard of before, but its engineers and producers are to be commended for a magnificent specimen of recording technology and art.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Variations (16) for Piano in F sharp minor on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Terhi Dostal (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
Length: 18 Minutes 31 Secs. 
Variations (13) for Piano on a Hungarian Dance, Set 2, Op. 21 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Terhi Dostal (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857; Germany 
Length: 6 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Variations and Fugue for Piano in B flat major on a theme by Handel, Op. 24 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Terhi Dostal (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1861; Germany 
Length: 28 Minutes 44 Secs. 
Variations (11) for Piano on an Original Theme, Set 1, Op. 21 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  Terhi Dostal (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1857; Germany 
Length: 16 Minutes 28 Secs. 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Wonderful suprise! April 14, 2012 By Troy K. (Oro Valley, AZ) See All My Reviews "I had never heard of Dostal or the label she records for before purchasing this SACD. (I decided to try it out after reading the review in Fanfare Magazine.) I have to say that I love the performances on this CD; it immediately has become my reference recording for the Handel Variations. The sound quality puts many other piano recordings to shame." Report Abuse
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