Beethoven Diabelli Variations
Here are Beethoven’s last two works for piano solo. For some reason the Bagatelles Op. 126, one of Beethoven’s most sublime set of pieces, tend to be overlooked, perhaps owing to their name and because they are only about 18 minutes long. So I’ll start by praising Daniel Ben-Pienaar’s recording of them – though, on the disc they come after the Diabelli Variations. They were recently recorded on a very fine volume of all the Bagatelles by Steven Osborne. But with masterworks of this order, it is hard to have too many alternative accounts; Ben-Pienaar certainly holds his own in these gentle, smiling, quirky pieces which nonetheless are as profound as many of the later more portentous works.
Not that you could call the Diabellis portentous, but they are on a grand scale, and make immense demands on stamina, virtuosity and depth of feeling. The great pianists – Sviatoslav Richter, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin, Stephen Kovacevich, to name a few – have left impressive accounts of them. Ben-Pienaar is excellent, though he is less well recorded than he should be: there is a boxy quality to the tone, which surely does not come from his piano. In this explosive work of drastic contrasts, Beethoven is at his happiest moving without transition from fearsome frolics to solemn profundities. In his last period he grew ever more impatient with transitions, and here he can shed them altogether. A chief concern of the performer is to nonetheless create a sense of unity-in-diversity. Does Ben-Pienaar succeed? So far I’m not so sure; each variation is superbly characterised, but the experience wasn’t, for me, cumulative.