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

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Decca
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

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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

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