BEETHOVEN: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, op. 120.
Rondo in A, WoO 49. Rondo in C, op. 51/1. Rondo a capriccio in G,
op. 129 "Rage over a lost penny." Minuet in E-flat,
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 047 TT: 71:00.
(this can be purchased from PRISTINE
Frustrating. Tovey called the Diabellis the greatest variation set of all time,
temporarily forgetting the Goldbergs, Art of the Fugue, and Musical
Offering. That said, I do consider them among Beethoven's most radical
works, ahead not only of its time, but of ours.
The Diabellis come from a promotion cooked up by Anton Diabelli, composer and
publisher, to contribute to war veterans' relief. He wrote a brief piano waltz
and asked the leading composers of the day (including Hummel, Czerny, and Franz
Liszt, age 11) to contribute a variation based on it. Beethoven balked, mostly
because he didn't want to be included with a bunch of second-raters. He instead
proposed that he write his own volume of variations. Diabelli, seeing the commercial
appeal of a second, all-Beethoven volume, agreed. However, the publisher didn't
reckon with how deeply Beethoven would get into the project or the numbers
of years it would take him to complete it (he was also involved in the Missa
Solemnis and the late piano sonatas at the time).
One of the many miracles of the Diabellis is the fact that Beethoven could
make such a masterpiece from such unpromising material. The original waltz
is laughably trivial. Perhaps Diabelli wanted to give his composers as much
scope as possible. At any rate, Beethoven doesn't even use all of it. By the
eleventh measure into the theme, Beethoven has everything he wants: a turn
(like a trill) in the right hand; repeated, even hammered chords in the left;
two phrases, the first emphasizing the interval of a fourth and the second
a fifth; a triadic melody; a repeated rising sequence of three notes, the most
interesting part of the theme, which Beethoven dismissed as "a cobbler's
patch." Each of the 33 variations comes from one or more of these elements.
Furthermore, every variation but one is in the key of C. So Beethoven avoids
the most common method of variation, key change, in a set of variations.
Nevertheless, the individuality of each variation stands out, and Beethoven
creates a huge range of expression. Even his humor (for a revered monument,
this work cracks an unusually large number of jokes) stretches over a wide
span from schoolyard teasing to sophisticated wit. Finally, late Beethoven
comes more and more under the influence of Bach. The late music proceeds far
more contrapuntally than the early or even middle. In addition to two fugues,
the set brims full with almost-casual canonic writing.
The internet lists nearly eighty recordings out there, so you have your pick
of some of the greatest pianists of the age. I've never believed in a best
performance of a repertory staple, particularly one by Beethoven. To me, Beethoven
affords pianists the broadest opportunity to speak in their own voice without
betraying the text. So I don't have a favorite, but several, and they
change from one time to another. Writers have long recognized Artur Schnabel
as a major Beethoven interpreter. Previously, I had known only his Beethoven
sonata and concerto cycles, plus the Bagatelles. These alone validate his considerable
If Schnabel had a weakness, it was technique. His fingers often moved stiffly,
and he always tried to play Beethoven as written, without fudging workarounds.
Furthermore, occasionally, as in the Hammerklavier Sonata, I suspect
that Beethoven deliberately wrote unplayable stuff. Nevertheless, Schnabel
tackles it. Sometimes he makes it. His strengths, however, lie in his electrifying
rhythms and attacks and in his overall approach to the music -- a respect for
the exploratory nature of Beethoven's musical mind, his surprising narrative
turns, his humor, both witty and coarse, and his sovereignty over musical architecture.
In addition, Schnabel conveys the musical context Beethoven works from, the
contemporary currents on the musical scene as well as Beethoven's prophesying
over later 19th-century developments. Not bad for a guy whose own teacher never
considered him a pianist.
Unfortunately, Schnabel's Diabellis represent a low point in his output. He
tends to gloss over details. Very often, he does not bring out canonic or imitative
voices in the individual variations (as in the "Sphinx" variation
20). He pays less attention than is his wont to expressive markings. He fails
to find a shape for several variations. You can tell the later fugue (variation
32) is a fugue, or at least fugal, but not a triple fugue. He misses the point
of several variations, beginning with the very first. He takes the theme way
too seriously, so that Beethoven's ensuing satiric march loses its point. The
grotesque inflation of the theme at variation 13 is taken without humor. Often
the virtuosic variations are reduced to banging (variation On the other hand,
Schnabel handles certain variations beautifully: for example, the fughetta
(variation 24), and the slow variations (30, 31) leading to the fugue. I'd
call the performance seriously inconsistent. You don't expect jaw-dropping
virtuosity from Schnabel but he does extremely well in some of the virtuosic
etudes (variation 7, for instance) and bangs away in others (variation 10).
Nevertheless, the contrast between variations 10 and the tender 11 is so wonderful
that you can forgive the lapse.
What truly surprises me, however, is the lack of psychological subtlety, certainly
not true of his sonata readings. You can describe many of these renderings
in one word, and I strongly suspect that Schnabel follows 19th-century commentators
like von Bülow. Even more surprising is the lack of shaping for the entire
opus itself, something that Schnabel is justly known for in other Beethoven.
A miscalculated statement of the theme and a final minuet (variation 33) that
fails to make magic are just the two most obvious symptoms of this lapse. Too
many variations simply go by, one after the other, like the sheep you count
to get to sleep.
With the three rondos, Schnabel's interpretive world rights itself: elegant,
stylish Rondos in A and C with delicate color shifts, and a Rondo à capriccio
that just about bounces off the walls with manic energy. Incidentally, the
title, "Rage over a lost penny," was added by the publisher, Diabelli,
who may also have completed the piece. The work combines classic rondo with
late-Beethoven development procedures. It proceeds far less straightforwardly
than the two earlier examples. The minuet comes across as a bit heavy to me,
but Schnabel takes the curse off by graceful shifts in dynamic and timbre.
Pristine's recordings give you Schnabel's nuanced colors
(keep in mind, these come from the Thirties), where Schnabel bothers with
S.G.S. (March 2012)