Of all the brilliant pianists COPI has had the honor to present, Natasha Paremski is the first to program Brahms’s fearsome Variations on a Theme of Paganini for us. These variations are undoubtedly one of the most difficult of all Romantic solo piano works. They comprise two books of 28 variations based on the popular Caprice No. 24 in A minor of Paganini for solo violin.
The original is itself a theme and variations, and prior to Brahms’s set, Schumann and Liszt composed their own variations on Paganini’s theme. As Brahms would have known these works and the musical ideas they mined, he purposefully intended his own as knuckle-crunching etude-variations.
Because he was such a superb composer, however, the technical challenges gild compelling musical expression, and they are thrilling to hear in live performance—on the rare occasion one gets to hear them! Not even Clara Schumann could play Brahms’s Paganini Variations (she referred to them as “Witch Variations”). They are indeed laden with fearsome technical challenges: double thirds and sixths, octaves, rapid hand-crossing, skips, trills, and cross rhythms—perilous from the first note to the last.
If you’ve seen Natasha Paremski’s performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 on the COPI web site, you know that she is more than up to this formidable task. Speaking of Rachmaninoff, he too wrote variations on this same tune: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra—which is by far the most popular of all these sets. And this year Paremski has performed that work with symphonies in Arkansas, North Carolina, and Mexico.
~ Matt Goodrich