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, WoO 82.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 047 TT: 71:00.
(this can be purchased from PRISTINE AUDIO

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 reputation.

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 nuance.

S.G.S. (March 2012)