Beethoven Diabelli Variations

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COMPOSERS: Ludwig van Beethoven
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven Diabelli Variations
WORKS: Diabeli Variations, Op. 120; plus variations by Czerny; Hummel; Kalkbrenner; Kerzkowsky; Kreutzer; Moscheles; Liszt; Pixis; FXW Mozart; Schubert
PERFORMER: Andreas Staier (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC902091

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When Anton Diabelli sent out his little waltz to 50 composers with a request that they provide a short variation on it, his intention was to create a snapshot of the current musical state of play. At the time Beethoven was completing the Missa Solemnis, and soon to turn to his last Piano Sonatas. Eager to trounce the competition, he responded with a piece writ so large as to challenge the scale and ambition of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Of course, the juxtaposition of genius and mediocrity can sting. So the likes of Czapek, Gelinek and Huglmanan have cause to be grateful that they have been spared inclusion on Andreas Staier’s bold new recording of Beethoven’s 33-variation colossus. His CD does, however, include 10 contributions to Diabelli’s original project, and it’s fascinating to contrast decorous Czerny, dreamy Schubert, and even the 11-year-old Liszt flexing his muscles with splashy minor-key turbulence.

Rather oddly the booklet notes assert that the Diabelli Variations are seldom heard. Nearer the mark is that the work has never been heard like this. Staier follows the other composers’ variations with his own atmospheric short improvisation on off-cuts from Beethoven’s manuscript sketches. He then plays the trump card of Diabelli’s waltz – how often is this a true vivace, incidentally? – which opens Beethoven’s work.

The endlessly ear-opening consequences are riveting; the wide-ranging aplomb of Beethoven’s Variations could have been conceived with Staier’s musical curiosity and flair in mind. Staier’s copy of a Conrad Graf fortepiano lends a whole new layer of characterisation, and not just in his use of the ‘bassoon’ stop in the Don Giovanni variation, or the Janissary thwack which makes Variation No. 23 such an explosive upbeat to Staier’s poised Fughetta. Deployed as part of a less intellectually cogent vision, these moments might have seemed like attention-seeking gimmicks, but they’re integral to Staier’s reading. He hungrily relishes Beethoven’s volatility and daring, but also understands the trajectory of the piece, from the so-called ‘cobbler’s patch’ waltz to the Janus-faced final minuet; the latter innocent yet oh-so-knowing after the Fugue. This isn’t just an indisputably great performance on fortepiano; it’s a great performance full stop. Given Staier’s virtuosity and insight, what price the Hammerklavier next?

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Paul Riley