It is a humbling thing for a pianist when he encounters works that he realizes he will not ever be able to play. All pianists eventually find these pieces–works that are so gargantuan in their technical demands that one knows immediately, after attempting to read through a certain work, that it is just never going to happen. Or, better stated, you know that a convincing performance of such and such piece will never come from YOUR hands.

I have never actually counted such works—it is one list I have not made! But if I HAD made a list, the Brahms Paganini Variations would be at or near the top—meaning, MOST unplayable.


Oftentimes, making such a discovery is something that one remembers: I had been bringing in to my teacher at Juilliard, Ania Dorfmann, some Rachmaninoff Preludes, which are very challenging pieces. I guess she was impressed enough with my playing one day to suggest that I learn the Brahms Paganini Variations. I went out and purchased the score.

Buying music in those days, at least for many Juilliard students, meant going to Frank’s Music, a classical music store in an ancient 13-story building about 10 blocks from school. You took an elevator up to the top floor, and when the elevator door opened, you were facing a cage with an opening and a very old man on the other side—Frank Marx, the owner. The place was dimly lit—you got the sense Frank was trying to conserve on electric bills—but through a window behind Frank, you could see New Jersey across the river. It was kind of like a ticket booth. You told him what you wanted, and he would go and search through stacks and stacks of music, and minutes later come back with your request.

Anyway, I digress, sorry. I purchased the Brahms-Pag and went immediately back to the Juilliard practice rooms to “try them out.”

The Brahms Paganini Variations are written in such a way that the easiest page is the first one—the theme. BUT, from the very first variation on—with its continuous sixths in the right hand and thirds in the left, sometimes in parallel motion, sometimes contrary, and moving like the wind—you see that this is no ordinary piece, even by virtuoso standards. After a few attempted read-throughs, I realized the obvious, and informed Mme. Dorfmann the following week that we would need to pick something else, and “wait until another time” to do the Brahms. That, of course, was a lie that we were both aware of. It was never going to happen.


Brahms composed his variations on a theme of Paganini in 1863, when he was 30 years old. You may recall that when I posted Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini (Music I Love #280), I mentioned that there is a particular, catchy tune, attributed to Nicolo Paganini, the 19th century violinist/composer, that has been utilized many times as the basis for variations—by Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Lutoslawski, even Andrew Lloyd Webber—and by Brahms.

The work consists of two books, each starting with the theme and followed by 14 variations, all in A Minor. Although the big piano works of Brahms—the concertos, a lot of the chamber music involving piano, and many individual pieces—are technically quite difficult, there was nothing in Brahms’ oeuvre, before or after the Paganini Variations, that rivaled it for being awesomely complex from a technical standpoint. In that regard, it is highly uncharacteristic of him. In writing these variations, it was as though he was trying (and succeeding) to out-Liszt Liszt. However, even in such a technical tour-de-force, Brahms could not help also baring his own expressive soul.


I’m linking to two clips. I think the first one is quite informative about the extraordinarily high level of playing that one encounters in the international piano competitions. This performance is by Tatiana Kolesova, from the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in 2005. She is, as you will hear, extremely impressive. Kolesova is a Russian pianist, and was 20 years old in this clip. She won the competition. She is now 33, has won every notable piano competition, and has a major career, performing all over the world.

I thought it would also be very interesting, for those so inclined, to follow along with the score while you listen. You do not have to be a pianist to get a feel for how difficult this work is through looking at the score. Evgeny Kissin’s (also incredible!) rendition of the Variations is accompanied by the score.





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