JWR Articles: CD - Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 (Featured performer: Emanuel Ax) - February 15, 2001

Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

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SK 48406
Ax is exhilarating

Whatever drew Brahms to Handel’s eight bars of stately, constrained melody, whose range is limited to an octave and whose notes never stray outside the eight notes of their B-flat major home scale, will remain a musicological mystery. But—compositionally—their very “simplicity” is ideal for the incredible journey penned by the master variationist of his time.

Emanuel Ax seems as eager as the composer to share the wealth of ideas, sudden turns, unexpected harmonies and rhythmical drive that make the twenty-five minute performance disappear in a heady wink.

This recording reveals a pianist who has all the tools: impeccable technique, rhythmic accuracy, Herculean endurance—but also the all-too-frequently missing gift of revealing the subtext of the art. He is a worthy advocate of Brahms.

The “Aria” is played just so—clean, clear and subdued. Imagine being at the première (Clara Schumann performed) and wondering what Brahms would do next to with this wee tune.

Both Brahms and Ax waste no time announcing their intentions, delving into the theme until it has exhausted the possibilities. (Until Book II!)

“Variation 1” is a nickel short of jazz, immediately bringing Handel’s music into the modern age. The lack of harmonic colour in the theme is beautifully foiled by the chromaticism of “Variation 2”; the three-against-two conflict between right and left hands provides a tension and flow unknown to the Baroque master.

“Variation 3” plays unirhythmic peek-a-boo where “Variation 4rldquo; provides a healthy dose of octavesr—endered with great aplomb by Ax. Many composers would be hard pressed to have this much variety in these opening minutes, but Brahms has just “finished his technique.”

Only Brahms could have written “Variation 5.” The tonic minor (with all five flats) seems worlds from its major namesake. The counterpoint of the two hands—no mere “tune and accompaniment”—and the many dynamic shades take the breath away. Ax delivers its inner beauty with a calm that demonstrates special understanding.

“Variation 6” is a textbook canon that provides perfect contrast to the intimacy of its predecessor. The relentless drive of 7 and 8, con vivacita—now back in the major—can only be dispelled by the brief silence inserted as a fermata at their surprisingly quiet close. Was that a dream? The first section is done.

Brahms has warmed to his subject and is ready to stretch its bounds even further. Ax’s responses to the luxuriant legato of 9, the mischievous indecision of 10 and the sublime music-box of 11 are entirely appropriate. My only quibble with his interpretation is my penchant for even greater dynamic contrast, particularly the “small” crescendos and accents that are to be found in nearly every variation.

Now the variations start to link. The quiet, uncertain understatement of 12 sets the table beautifully for the return of the dark tonic minor in 13, where Brahms drops the repeat sign of each section and—instead—writing variations on the variations; this wonderful skill is most famously used in the first movement of his Fourth Symphony. Time-driven conductors do not have the “luxury” of skipping the repeat of that exposition!

The constant sixteenths of 14 and 15 keep the pianist busy and the listener engaged; 16 develops through counterpoint where 17 is a study in long and short. 18 brings dialogue—finally, the left and right hands begin talking to one another. 19 is the most “baroque” of the bunch. Its relaxing triple metre (a favourite of Handel’s) provides a welcome respite from the wide range of expression experienced so far, but also quietly whets our curiosity for what might come next. Again, Ax rises to the occasion and delivers perfect rhythm and masterful ornaments.

“Variation 20” reveals double darkness: deep two-sided chromaticism and a shuddering, searching dynamic shape. Nothing is settled but the final resolution to B-flat through the far door of G-flat on the second last beat is one of the most exquisite moments in the entire work—Ax’s weight and slight hesitation show the harmonic significance has not been missed.

The mist of “Variation 21” comes from the subtle combination of three-over-four (triplets/sixteenths) and the unexpected foray into the relative minor. It’s been a long time coming but will not be re-visited.

Safely back in B-flat, the next four variations build upon themselves: 22 uses naivety; 23 uncertainly—nearly fear; 24 is nervous before a defiant 25 adds balance. What could possibly follow?

Brahms presents Handel’s theme in the most revered form of the Baroque: the fugue. Here, we are given a four voice construction (complete with a redundant entry). The trick is to listen horizontally, rather than vertically (tune plus accompaniment …). Brahms develops the developed—he turns the shape upside down (inversion); slows its speed (augmentation) and through his mastery of both harmony and rhythm—particularly syncopated—removes the bar line and lets the music freely roam. Truly, the score is just a representation of the ideas. Ax navigates with purpose and skill so that when the clarion pedal Fs arrive, the sense of joy and final resolution let us celebrate with him this astonishing work that grew from a slight “previously owned” theme into an affirmation of the human experience in a brilliant combination of notes and thought.

Ax brings it home with authority and truth.

Also on the generously filled disc are two sets of “shorter” piano works.

Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118 owes its existence to the stellar clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld whose exquisite artistry lured Brahms out of retirement beginning with the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114.

The six movements morph into a magical whole as Ax delves deliberately and deeply into the subtext of each. The opening “Intermezzo”—a rhythmic gem filled with charged emotion—convincingly sets the stage for the remainder. The exquisitely balanced “Andante teneramente” is a master class on legato, featuring an octave change-of-register in the right hand (C-sharp) whose structural and dramatic importance eludes many but is given just the right wait/weight here. The G-minor “Ballade” is another marvel of surety and deep understanding of the magnificent shift to ever-so-distant B major; the final adieu slips away beautifully.

No. 4 (Allegretto un poco agitato) tells its hushed secrets in a deceptively easy fashion, preparing the way for the for the thoughtfully rendered dreamy promise of the F-major “Romance”. The closing “Intermezzo” is, in many ways, one of the finest works ever to come from the German master. Its deeply woven fabric features a sombre mood, briefly instilled with whispered hope. Every note has meaning and a role; minutiae such as opening/inverting double thirds to a sixth for that line’s last hurrah can only be envied by others toiling in the craft of creating something new out of long-used components.

With so much personal investment required—and successfully found—closing off the recital with the earlier Two Rhapsodies for Piano, Op. 79 proves an excellent programming choice.

Ax soars through the pair, capturing their inner tension and outer bravura in fine style. The F-sharp-driven pauses linking the sections of No. 1 (and its ever-so-delicate “Death of Ase” second subject) are as suspenseful as could be. Then the lumbering passions of No. 2 (and the brilliant development of the left-hand dotted subject) brings the disc to a hugely satisfying conclusion even as Brahms has his turn at a “Die Moldau”-like final cadence. JWR

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Composer - Johannes Brahms
Featured performer - Emanuel Ax
Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118
Two Rhapsodies for Piano, Op. 79
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