Rarely has a set of variations absorbed the spirit of its prompting theme as thoroughly as does Brahms’s Schumann Variations Op. 9 which borrows from the older composer’s Bunter Blätter (‘Colourful Leaves’) in the service of music that inhabits a world as private, equivocal, even as tragic as Schumann’s own. Take the poco adagio 10th Variation on Sarah Beth Briggs’ exceptional CD of Variations on Avie AV2569, c£13.75, which could as easily be a lonely stray captured from one of Schumann’s piano suites. It’s a beautiful work, as are its well-chosen disc companions. Beethoven’s Variations on God Save the King were written to show us Brits what a treasure we have in our (nowadays) much-maligned anthem – and in case anyone should suspect a commercial subtext to the recording, it was made during last August, a good month before Queen Elizabeth II died. Beethoven’s Variations on an original Theme WoO 79 thrives on a kaleidoscopic range of keys (each variation appears in a key a third below the previous one) and Briggs’s patient performance releases its shock value without overstating the case. She’s a strong though sensitive player, which is just what’s needed for Mendelssohn’s piano masterpiece, a Beethoven tribute in fact, his Variations sérieuses. Compare the fourth of Beethoven’s WoO 79 Variations with the twelfth of Mendelssohn’s and you can hardly fail to spot the similarity. The programme opens with one of Mozart’s most substantial sets of variations (it plays for 15’30”), the sequence he wrote on a Minuet by Jean-Pierre Duport. With excellent sound and authoritative notes by Daniel Jaffé this is a most rewarding release.
It seems hardly possible to utter the words ‘Variations’ and ‘Bach’ in a breath without ‘Goldbergs’ following on straight afterwards. But then there’s the Aria Variata BWV989, a theme and ten virtuoso variations dating from around 1709, each of them in two sections, both repeated. They appear brilliantly played as part of a musically substantial, super-bargain 3-cd set of miscellaneous pieces for harpsichord performed by Pieter-Jan Belder, on Brilliant Classics 96065, 3 cds, c10:60. The collection’s contents also features the teenage Bach’s poignant Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, ‘departed’ as going on a journey that is, where in musical terms the brother tries to persuade his sibling not to leave, warning of dangers that may well be laying in wait, before the music turns joyous and a postillion arrives (Belder here really ups the tempo). The work concludes with an ebullient fugue, one of Bach’s earliest, and most effective. Add various sonatas, suites, fantasies, fugues and preludes and you have the basis of a veritable Bach-fest.