Italian concert pianist Carlo Grante presented the third program of his “Masters of High Romanticism” series last night at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. In this installment Grante delivered penetrating performances of Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Hungarian Song, Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, and Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel.
Ranging from the familiar and frequently celebrated to the relatively little-known, these works offer fascinating insight into the great German composer’s methods and shine a light on the debts Brahms owed his progenitors even as he boldly forged the beginnings of modern music.
As evidenced by the detailed analysis in Grante’s program notes, the pianist has applied a strong intellect and deep theoretical understanding to his study of these complex works, which by their very nature as variations depart from many of the patterns of theme, development and recapitulation that characterize most of classical music’s other forms. The flip side of that coin is an attitude of humility before the greatness of the art, manifested in the pianist’s apparently explorative approach.
By “explorative” I don’t mean to imply hesitancy. Grante’s renderings had by turns the delicacy, open-mindedness, and forcefulness the variations demand. (The Bösendorfer piano’s tone sounded a little muddy at first, but that may have been because of the location of my seat, or my being accustomed to the sound of a Steinway in these large halls).
I merely mean that the pianist’s approach was one of love and respect for the music, not a sense of entitlement or ownership. (In fact he may yet be immersed in his study of the works on a basic level: he had memorized the homey “Hungarian Song” variations and the showy “Paganini” set, but not the contemplative, sometimes mournful “Schumann” or the climactic “Handel.”)
Brahms built pyrotechnic displays of romance and passion into his two sets of variations on Paganini’s familiar, devilish theme and created an even more imaginative structure around Handel’s rather sober one. With the theme sometimes hidden in the bass and occasional proto-jazzy chord variations or substitutions, the pieces are by turns carnivorous and carnivalesque, swelling like a storm at sea, subsiding like the tide, all the while showcasing Brahms’ endless capacity for invention. Grante’s sensitive touch allowed the variations to flow one into the next as smoothly as one might hope for given the extreme shifts in color and temperature at some of the transitions.
These works repay repeated listening. As an example, Grante’s program notes point out that several of the Handel Variations owe a debt to devices Scarlatti used in his sonatas, something I hadn’t known. Just as Brahms is, to me, the pinnacle of High Romanticism, Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) is, of his own period, the composer whom I have always responded to the most at a gut level. Knowing Brahms had an affinity for Scarlatti makes the work of both composers that much more resonant. (Grante is recording all 550 of Scarlatti’s sonatas.)
I once had the opportunity to interview Emanuel Ax on the subject of variations, and he told me that “we’re so centered on the sonata style. What’s nice sometimes is to look at other ways to deal with structure, other ways to deal with expression, other ways to deal with forming your thoughts.” As Brahms revisited the variations form during successive stages of his long career, he found new and original ways to form his own magnificent thoughts, and Tuesday night’s concert Carlo Grante paid impressive tribute to the composer’s unique genius.
Upcoming performances in Grante’s “Masters of High Romanticism” series in different cities are noted online.