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His involvement with the musical cathedrals of Bach’s Chaconne was not the first time Brahms had been inspired by a work for solo violin. Some 15 years earlier, a young Brahms of not quite 30, encountering Vienna for the first time, grappled with the diabolical fireworks of Paganini’s 24th Caprice.

One of his early acquaintances in the intoxicating artistic epicenter was Carl Tausig, a young pupil of Franz Liszt, who was considered by his contemporaries to be at least the equal if not superior to his master in pianistic virtuosity. Tausig’s style of playing fascinated Brahms, and his immersion in this world of transcendental technique manifested itself in the two books of Variations on a Theme of Paganini he composed at this time. 

Based on the same tune Rachmaninoff would use as the basis of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in the next century, Brahms’ variations are a taxing calisthenic workout. Leaps, trills, octaves, arpeggios – in combination and across both hands: just some of the exertions spread out across 14 variations, culminating in a rousing finale. Thrilling for the spectator as well as the auditor. And anything but austere.

When published as Opus 35, Variations on a Theme of Paganini was actually a subtitle. Had sobriety prevailed? Did Brahms demur? The main title was Studien für Pianoforte. Brahms had opted to describe his most outlandishly virtuosic music to date as a series of studies.

Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, is a frequent contributor to the program book.