Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, completed in 1823, transforms a theme by publisher Anton Diabelli into a set of 33 fiendishly difficult movements which put it at the pinnacle of the piano repertoire. We talk to Nick van Bloss about how he approached the work for his new recording.
Why do you think the Diabelli Variations has endured as such an important piece in the piano repertoire?
We think of Beethoven as having distinct periods in his output – the early, the middle and the transcendental later period where he was really exploring things. Although the Diabelli Variations is a late work, it’s as if Beethoven reenacts all three periods within it. We get a very jocular and witty Beethoven – really, it could have been written by the composer when he was young – and suddenly there is the depth of the late piano sonatas in the music. We're on this incredible journey where we don’t know where he will go next. Music resembling the middle period feels very ordered and settled in comparison and that’s in there too. This fusion of all three elements – the wit; the angst; the feeling of being settled – is captured in these tiny little variations which together make a huge musical journey.
What do you have to consider as a performer when approaching variation form?
It’s easy to get fixated on the individual variations and try to tell a mega story within the very small space of one variation, so the ultimate thing is to consider the whole of the journey. You have to think about the story from the opening theme to the very last note of the last variation, and try to step back and view it from afar, asking yourself what the composer really wanted to say. It sounds like a puerile question, but it’s a basic one: musicians have to ask ‘what is this piece about?’ and, although the answer to that is usually pretty difficult, it helps to not micro-manage emotions on the variation scale and allow for one big emotional journey from start to finish. The variations will then be able to speak individually for the small amount of time they exist.
How do you go about approaching a piece that has been performed and recorded so often?
That’s an important question to ask in this day and age where there are so many recordings and everything’s available instantly online where we can hear anyone and everyone at any moment. The important thing is to ask yourself if you have anything new to say. My approach is to never listen to any recording of any work that I’m playing so that I can approach it in my own way using the score as my guide. The Diabelli Variations are very warm and communicative. Beethoven was at the end of his life when he wrote it and is giving us something very honest with it and you can find that in the score.
How do you go about 'feeling' the more dance-like variations?
After this incredible journey, the last Diabelli variation is titled ‘minuet’. When I sat down to record it I found myself asking how you would go about actually dancing a minuet. Beethoven must have included one for a good reason and I knew that physically dancing it may help me to decide what kind of lilt to give the music. I grabbed hold of the producer and in the control room one bald guy (me) and one bearded guy (my producer) could be seen doing deep knee bends – and getting slightly stuck – to find the music’s beat. It turned out that the more I tried to dance the minuet, the worse the dancing got! I was rendered unable to play actually – every time I went out to record I thought of us dancing and couldn’t stop laughing. When I did start to play again, it had ultimately helped the music so I suggest more people dance – it certainly helps lighten the mood!
So, it was an enjoyable piece to record…
Yes. The producer I work with, Adrian Farmer, is just an incredible inspiration. He says virtually nothing, which is very unusual – they’re usually on the mic making suggestions which can interfere with the flow – so I just took a day to record the Diabelli Variations. I don’t believe in spending days and days and days recording – you tend to reach a point of no return where you don’t get much out of it anyway. It's a very fresh and natural work so I wanted to make the recording in a natural and very honest way – one as close to a performance as I could get in a performance scenario – to honour that.
Nick van Bloss’s recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is out on Monday 2 March on the Nimbus label