Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (Kovacevich)
Ashish Xiangyi Kumar
Published at : 19 Nov 2020
Brahms was, along with Bach and Beethoven, one of the true masters of variation form, and this set of variations is testament to his genius. Unlike Beethoven, Brahms never departs radically from the theme, but the structure of the Op.24, its incredible harmonic discipline (Brahms focuses with laserlike intensity on the bass line and uses it to control the structure and character of variations) and its dramatic scope put it easily alongside such works as the Diabelli and Goldberg Variations. Especially notable in the Op.24 is the use of Baroque forms – a siciliana, musette, canon, and fugue all feature.
Also of interest is the exquisite organisation of the work: each variation gains meaning not only from the theme, but from its exact placement in the set. Often consecutive variations are paired, or groups will share a common variational idea. Brahms pays careful attention to the dramatic arc of the set: he maintains a state of flux in the first half, allowing the music to reach a peak in V.13-15. After that he keeps the temperature perceptibly low, until a massive drama swarms out of blackness starting in V.23. And then that incredible fugue caps it all off.
Kovacevich’s performance fully justifies his reputation as a great player of Brahms. He restrains himself in the more superficially attractive variations, but devotes much of his energy to the more abstract ones, eventually saving his strength for what must be the finest performance of the concluding fugue ever put on record.
00:00 – Aria.
00:56 – Var.1. Introducing the first group of variations (1-4). A busily syncopated variation that sticks closely to the theme.
01:46 – Var.2. Like Var.1, it traces out the melodic line of the aria, but adds in chromatic sliding.
02:23 – Var.3. Delicate rhythmic wrongfooting of the melodic contour of the aria.
03:00 – Var.4. More rhythmic trickery, with the accents coming on the last semiquaver of each beat.
03:48 – Var.5. Introducing the second group of variations (5-8). The first change in key. This variation is obviously paired with the next – they both employ the same melodic line.
05:00 – Var.6. A canon at the octave, with inverted canon in the second half.
06:02 – Var.7. Paired with the next variation. Fast and high-spirited, and fundamentally rhythmic in nature. A sustained drumbeat effect emphasises the inner voices.
06:37 – Var.8. And now the variation rockets up the keyboard over the LH's galloping rhythm, and the emphasis is on the voices in the RH, which flip in the variation’s second half.
07:13 – Var.9. Introducing the third group of variations (9-18). A grand statement in chromatic octaves.
08:29 – Var.10. Exhilarating use of melodic displacement.
09:03 – Var.11. The beginning of a pair of gently melodic variations.
09:58 – Var.12. While paired with Var.11, the LH anticipates Var.17.
10:50 – Var.13. A florid funeral march, the first variation without repeats.
12:14 – Var.14. The first of a trio of virtuosic variations built around similar rhythms and figuration.
12:52 – Var.15. A gloriously propulsive showpiece.
13:32 – Var.16. Note the use of canonic imitation.
14:01 – Var.17. This and the next variation are built around the device of a (nearly identical) rising figure in the LH recalling the aria’s melody, while the RH provides ornamentation.
14:27 – Var.18.
15:33 – Var.19. The beginning of the last group of variations. A siciliana.
16:34 – Var.20. Darkly wending chromatic chords.
17:53 – Var.21. In the relative minor, with the theme beautifully disguised in the grace notes.
18:44 – Var.22. A lovely music-box variation, recalling the drone of a musette.
19:41 – Var.23. The build-up to the fugue begins. This variation is clearly paired with the one that comes after it – they are both nearly identical.
20:16 – Var.24. Harmonically and rhythmically identical to Var.23, but with massive scales that boil restlessly in both hands.
20:52 – Var.25. A harmonically straightforward statement of the opening aria that leads triumphantly into the closing fugue. An interesting symmetry with the first variation is formed by the fact that every pause in one hand is filled by activity in the other.
21:33 – The concluding fugue. The subject comes solely from the ascending major second from the first two beats in the top voice of Handel's theme. The ascending second is stated twice in sixteenth notes, and repeated again a minor third higher. This parallels the first measure of Handel's theme, which ascends from B-flat to C to D to E-flat. The fugue itself is breathtaking, featuring inversions, augmentation, double counterpoint, and a huge (leaping) pedal on the F. There is quite literally no moment in this entire section which does not use material from the subject (*both* the head and the tail, often inverted) or the countersubject. The textures are unmistakably Brahmsian – large, dense, exultant.