CD Review: Brahms: Handel Variations (Murray Perahia)

Murray Perahia 2Murray Perahia’s ‘Brahms: Handel Variations’ CD blends classical restraint with warmth and lyricism

Perahia’s first Brahms recording in 20 years, released last month, features a great work realized by a great musical mind that contemplates the soul of a great composer

By Kevin Moore

A fellow pianist once told me that the true definition of Baroque ornamentation was “that stuff that pianists agonize over but listeners couldn’t care less about.” There is certainly a grain of truth in that. However, Baroque ornamentation came to mind recently when listening to pianist Murray Perahia’s new CD containing Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op.24.

Brahms’s classic work was dedicated to his “beloved friend,” Clara Schumann, and given to her on her 42nd birthday on September 13, 1861. It is based on the third movement Aria con variazioni of George Frederick Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.1 in Bb major, HWV 434. Handel’s original is an Aria with 5 variations, while Brahms’s expanded his work to 25 variations and a lengthy fugue in conclusion. The piece is a prime example of Brahms’s frequent reliance on Baroque models, something that continued throughout his lifetime.

An important initial question for the performer is how to play the ornaments of which there are eight in this two-part, 8-measure theme. Seven of them are marked with a simple “tr” indicating a trill, while one uses the short wavy line indicating a Baroque trill, either long or short (pralltriller). In the 19th century all such ornaments were simply called mordents and generally all played the same way. It is clear today that Handel expected most trills to begin on the upper note, at least when not preceded by that note. But throughout the 19th century and until the 1920’s almost all performers began their trills on the starting note. Which did Brahms intend? I don’t know, but suspect that he followed the prevailing fashion. I do know that most performers in the 20th and 21st centuries begin these trills from above, in the Baroque fashion, the way we now believe Handel would have wanted. In fact, a quick check of recordings by Moiseiwitsch, Serkin, Ashkenazy, Kovacevich, Ax and Kuerti found that all but one of these begin the trills on the upper note. It’s interesting that only the oldest of those pianists, Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963), begins on the starting note. Perahia does the same, and that changes the melodic contour of the Aria.

Is this a good thing? I think it is. It highlights the stepwise, limited range of the theme and its lyrical, melodic quality. Most performers tend to approach this piece in general as a work of heroic proportions, which of course it is. And that gets translated into a bigness of tone, projection and style. Baroque-style trills in the Aria give a formal, stately, proud and royal processional kind of quality to the theme. Perahia simply makes it sing. His performance is relatively soft-focused and rounded in tone. Yet there is muscle and power where necessary.

He also does the mordents in variation 19 the same way –– and here, also, starting them ahead of the beat in distinct 19th century style. It’s also easier to play them this way, and almost certainly the way Brahms would have preferred.

There are many wonderful details that catch the ear in this recording. The pacing seems exactly right and the character of each variation is beautifully detailed. Unlike Beethoven in his Variations on a Theme of Diabelli, op.120, Brahms stays close to the character of the Aria. Yet within that character he finds an incredible variety of possibilities that stretches from the powerful and dramatic to the tender and lyrical. Perahia details these with care and scrupulous musicianship.

This is a rich, wonderful performance that invited me to re-think a work I have performed many times. And that is exactly what is so enriching about hearing an artist of the thoughtfulness and musicianship of Murray Perahia. It brings you a great work like this realized by a great musical mind and imagination, and shows the possibilities inherent in Brahms’s writing.

The recording venue, the Funkhaus Berlin seems nearly ideal and the beautifully regulated instrument has richness and warmth yet startling clarity. From an engineering standpoint it is marvelously recorded. And the written album notes, originally in German by Katrin Eich, are enriched by interesting and well researched historical background.

Even in the company of classic recordings by Moiseiwitsch, Serkin, Fleischer or Anton Kuerti, this recording stands up well. It also has a good bit in common with the recorded performance of Emanuel Ax.

The remainder of the CD consists of the two Rhapsodies, op.79 and the ten Piano Pieces (Klavierstücke) making up opp.118 and 119. While the Handel Variations represent the young, athletic and virtuosic Brahms, these are the distillation of a lifetime of compositional skill. And the key to their character can be seen in directions to the performer that are literally strewn across the pages. Terms like sotto voce (in a lower voice), dolce (sweetly), teneramente (tenderly), espressivo (expressively), grazioso (gracefully), perdendo (dying away), sostenuto (sustained, slower), all represent a gentle, mostly quiet and lyrical intensity. Only the Ballade in G minor, op.118, no.3 and the Rhapsody in Eb major, op.119, no.4 are of a more vigorous nature, yet even the Rhapsody ends unexpectedly in minor. On the whole these pieces seem to contain all of life, viewed from the perspective of one approaching the end.

In Perahia’s hands the passionate intensity and overlapping lines of the first Intermezzo in op.118 simply soar. The second one, in A major, tugs gently at the listener’s heartstrings, with its deeply expressive and subtle counterpoint managed exquisitely yet avoiding the cloying sentimentality that some performers bring to it. Perahia’s performance is gently propulsive and with a natural give and take.

The Intermezzo in Eb minor, the sixth and last piece in this set mesmerizes with its sad, misty, autumnal nostalgia. The major key section is suddenly brighter yet it all fades away into sad mystery. It is done just wonderfully.

The first of the op.119 pieces, the Intermezzo in B minor, was mentioned by Brahms in a May 1893 letter to Clara Schumann. He wrote that it was:

“…crawling with dissonaces [sic]. These are deemed appropriate and can be explained…The little piece is exceptionally melancholy and to say ‘to be played very slowly’ isn’t saying enough. Every measure and every note must sound ritard[ando], as though one wished to suck melancholy out of every one, with a wantonness and contentment derived from the aforementioned dissonaces[sic].” Perahia takes seriously this revealing comment by Brahms and makes this piece linger in the memory.

Perahia plays this entire CD with an appropriate classical restraint that throws a clear light on all of the works. Yet there is warmth and lyricism aplenty that finds the full measure of Brahms’ great pieces. And this CD will go on my shelf right next to treasured recordings of Kempff, Katchen, Kovacevich, Lupu, and Kuerti.

Details Box:
Genre: CD review
What: Brahms: Handel Variations
Artist: Murray Perahia (piano)
Label: Sony Classical 79469, DDD
Recorded/Released: Germany, June 19-24, 2010; released November, 2010
Works: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24; Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Klavierstücke (6), Op. 118; Klavierstücke (4), Op. 119

  1 comment for “CD Review: Brahms: Handel Variations (Murray Perahia)

  1. Barbara Haas
    December 21, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks for this insightful review. Perahia is one of my favorites. I’m going to order the CD right away.

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