Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op.35 (Kissin)

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Ashish Xiangyi Kumar
Published at : 21 Dec 2020
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Brahms was not a showman, and rarely wrote music which aimed at being technically difficult. But when he did, he out-Liszted Liszt. The Paganini Variations, as you can tell from their main title, are not just a fully-fledged concert work but also a set of exercises for study, featuring technical challenges that are often more than a little obscene [19:24]. As always, the variations are also musically dazzling in their variety and invention. Kissin plays the faster variations with astounding bravura, [11:29] dynamic control [16:05], and articulation [16:49], and is exquisitely delicate in the slower ones [07:45].

Book I
00:00 – Theme
00:25 – Var.1. Churning sixths and thirds. Already extremely difficult.
00:49 – Var.2. Sixths in the LH, and rapid embellished octaves in the RH. Toybox-like sounds.
01:14 – Var.3. A single line divided between the hands scurries along in the new 6/8 meter with upbeats. Repeated notes divided rapidly between hands.
01:40 – Var.4. Accented trills and very large arpeggios.
02:45 – Var.5. The first quiet one. Hand-crossing, chromaticism, contrasting meter in both hands.
03:33 – Var.6. Syncopation and rapid, quiet octave leaps.
03:56 – Var.7. Fiery and dramatic. Chromatic octaves at the edges of the keyboard and harmonies in the centre of the keyboard swing inwards and outwards. Their movement is reversed in the second statement.
04:21 – Var.8. Leaps and thirds. Mazeppa-like.
04:47 – Var.9. Harmonic movement twice as slow as in earlier variations. Chromatic chords in RH against repeated octaves in tripet rhythm in LH.
06:07 – Var.10. Hand-crossing, syncopation.
07:45 – Var.11. The first of two major-key variations. Both hands in a high treble register playing expressive, steady, “tinkling” harmonies. In this variation, there are four full “repetitions,” as each two-bar unit uses the same exact material. The only variety comes from touch and dynamic change.
09:30 – Var.12. Continues the music box character of Var.11. RH has leaping, meandering arpeggios in the high register in triplet rhythm, the LH (beginning with an upbeat), in opposite motion in “straight” rhythm.
10:56 – Var.13. A “gypsy” variation, with difficult glissandi.
11:29 – Var.14. A stunning finale to Book I, really three variations rolled into one. The RH and LH pass a rapid scale between them, taking breaks to leap to two repeated notes and a punctuating octave. Trills intensify the variation, and then a huge cascade of arpeggios takes over. Repeated notes and vast rapid leaps. A trill emerges, is sustained, fades away, and becomes a drone over which a new variation is established. After a while the drone disappears altogether and broken octaves punctuated by sharp accents take over.

Book II
13:11 – Var.1. Octave leaps, thirds.
13:56 – Var.2. Polyrhythm. Winding octaves and arpeggios.
14:31 – Var.3. Ascending thirds punctuated by octaves. Double notes.
15:00 – Var.4. A lilting waltz.
16:05 – Var.5. Dotted octaves, fleet-footed descending triplets.
16:28 – Var.6. Large, arching arpeggios with sharp, crushing embellishments.
16:49 – Var.7. A masterpiece of disguised complexity. A barely discernible but disorientating upbeat in the LH. 4 against 3 against 9 polyrhythm, later turned to 8 against 9. A chromatic line (the top note of an arpeggio) set of against octaves. Hands switch roles in second half.
17:07 – Var.8. Arpeggios in contrary motion. Meant to evoke a violin. (Kissin plays the repeats using the ossia).
17:35 – Var.9. A stark study in legato octaves.
18:35 – Var.10. Huge arpeggio sweeps, with extended harmonic displacement and “delay”.
19:24 – Var.11. Nearly impossible to play. Skittish and scherzo-like. Essentially a scale with hands moving in strict contrary motion, alternating octaves and single notes *outside of the preceding octave*.
19:48 – Var.12. A nocturne, the only variation not in A major/minor. Hemiolas (3/4 against 6/8), syncopation, inner voices.
21:08 – Var.13. Long scalar descents in the gypsy scale, featuring very delicate voicing in both hands.
22:16 – Var.14. Four variations in one. The first is scherzo-like, with the 2/8 meter speeding it up even more. Descending scales over a detached right hand. The second features double-note harmonies in groups of two passed between the hands. The third features smooth arching leaps and descents, in unison an octave apart. In the fourth 2/8 becomes 2/4 and triplet rhythm appears, and after a pregnant pause on a deceptive “dominant” chord, Brahms’ much-beloved polyrhythms close the work.
BrahmsVariations on a Theme of PaganiniKissin

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