Beethoven: Diabelli Variations; 12 Variations in A on a Russian Dance, WoO 71

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Diabelli Variations; 12 Variations in A on a Russian Dance, WoO 71
PERFORMER: Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 475 8401
Ashkenazy’s new recording of Beethoven’s last large-scale piano work forms a sort of long-delayed postscript to the cycle of the 32 sonatas he recorded for Decca back in the 1970s. In the intervening years he’s become much more familiar as a conductor, and it’s possible to feel that his playing has lost a little of its former fluency and ease. Not that the Diabelli Variations ought to sound smooth or polished – on the contrary, Beethoven’s characteristically gruff humour is


one of their essential ingredients – but such moments as the ethereal minuet that forms the work’s extended envoi need a touch more legato elegance than Ashkenazy provides. Nor, on the other hand, does he always convey the music’s full quirkiness: right from the outset Beethoven subverts Diabelli’s innocuous waltz-tune by imbuing it with strong off-beat accents, but Ashkenazy glosses over these, as he does some of the important dynamic nuances in the variations, so that the performance as a whole sounds under-characterised. Ashkenazy seems more at home

in the variations on a theme from the ballet Das Waldmädchen by Paul Wranitzky, who was the director of the court theatres in Vienna. They’re on a much smaller scale than the Diabelli set, but once again Beethoven enjoys himself at the expense of a theme that’s quite undistinguished in itself, adding a substantial coda in which he goes very much his own way. Ashkenazy brings out all the wit and charm of this early piece, but it’s essentially a bonus. As for the Diabelli Variations, they seem tailor-made for Alfred Brendel’s brand of humour as well as his mastery of large-scale form, and he gives a dazzling performance, managing also to penetrate more deeply than most of his rivals into


the heart of the Largo Variation 31, Beethoven’s counterpart to the tragic 25th variation from Bach’s Goldberg set. Misha Donat