Throughout his long career, Brahms trusted his conservative instincts, deliberately working in traditional forms, and staunchly opposing the more Romantic inclinations of Lizst and Wagner. This is surely the Brahms we hear in the Op. 24 Variations, an homage to the musical past, both in its manipulation of baroque forms and its echoes of Bach and Beethoven. Though the theme is Handel's, Brahms is clearly thinking about the two great sets of keyboard variations that preceded him: Bach's Goldberg and Beethoven's Diabelli. Appropriately enough, the work culminates in an elaborate fugue the Kapellmeister of Leipzig himself might have envied.
In general, Brahms avoided the kind of technical bravura that was characteristic of Lizst and his followers, but his Op. 35 represents a significant, if not shocking departure. Based on a theme by the violinist who first created the fashion for virtuosic display, the two sets of Paganini Variations are, in fact, the most challenging works in the entire solo piano literature, as "diabolic" in their demands as anything Lizst wrote. As the critic James Huneker wrote, a pianist must have "fingers of steel, a heart of burning lava, and the courage of a lion." If that statement seems exaggerated, consider how many well-known virtuoso pianists never bothered to record the work: Rubenstein, Horowitz, Brendel, Gieseking, Schnabel, Pollini, and Serkin among them. According to ArkivMusic.com, 205 pianists have recorded performances of Beethoven's "Appasionata" sonata, not exactly a walk in the park to play. But only 59 have attempted to scale the craggy heights of the Paganini Variations.
Olga Kern was the Gold Medalist in the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2001. I first heard her in a recital of Rachmaninoff and Balakirev [HMU 907399], and was much impressed both by her technical prowess and her fiery temperament. She approached the daunting challenge of Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata with a reckless abandon that reminded me of pianists like the young Alexis Weissenberg and Simon Barere.
When Brahms first presented her with his Paganini Variations, Clara Schumann called it "witch music," and doubted if any woman had the requisite strength to play it. Well, there's no doubt that Olga Kern can play the notes. But the high-voltage impetuosity she was able to project in that Rachmaninoff recital is here replaced by a cautiousness and reserve that cut against the grain of the music. There are some fine moments, to be sure, but she's not able to sustain any sense of momentum, and the finales of both Books sound merely hectic. She seems much more at home in the Handel Variations, but for all the sensitive playing, the courtly grace, and the sometimes puckish humor, the structure sags, and even the great fugue sounds anticlimactic and effortful. In brief, a disappointing showing for a pianist of great promise.
If you're in the market for a Paganini Variations, Michealangeli and the young Earl Wild (on Vanguard) both play the music with dazzling, superhuman virtuosity. As is his wont, Claudio Arrau gives the music a sense of weight and depth, a seriousness of purpose, that just about everybody else misses. But for me, it's the lamentably short-lived Julius Katchen who produces the most thrilling, diabolic, hot-blooded version of the music. If you're willing to consider historic performances, the almost forgotten Egon Petri is just as exciting as the Katchen, though the dull sound is definitely a problem. If you're looking for a modern recording, there are versions by courageous younger pianists (Angelich, Kissin, Oppitz, Zilberstein, and -- best of all -- Thibaudet). Their performances don't quite match the more vintage ones I've listed above, but they all do a better job of representing the music than Kern.
In the Handel Variations, there is a wider range of options, including a fine sounding, modern recording by Emanuel Ax, and classic accounts by Serkin, Solomon, and Arrau. Katchen is just as combustible in this score as he is in the Paganini Variations. But in this case, I'd go with the young Leon Fleischer, whose astonishing performance is part of a mid-price set that also includes both piano concertos with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at the height of their powers. These powerful recordings belong in everyone's collection in spite of the acceptable but dated sound.
The less said about the Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op. 21 the better. It's easily the worst piece of music I've ever heard from Brahms, and gives us a sense of the mediocre composer he might have become, had he not constantly challenged himself, as all great artists do. The clear, pristine sound is terrific, but that hardly matters given the disappointing nature of the performances.