Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

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Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
Andras Schiff (pianos)

[ ECM Records / 2 CD ]

Release Date: Friday 10 January 2014

The Diabelli Variations have long been considered a magnum opus in Beethoven's piano music and a towering historical contribution to the genre, with Bach's Goldberg Variations as their forebear and Brahms's Handel Variations as their heir.
Yet many pianists, even great pianists, have been intimidated by their sheer immensity. Throughout their careers Edwin Fischer and Wilhelm Kempff gave a wide berth to this allegedly unwieldy masterpiece, a work that sometimes sounds like a melancholy or grimly humorous commentary on the whole of music history and seems to cast an avant-gardist glance at 20th- or even 21st-century music.

Hans von Bülow called this musical monument a microcosm of Beethoven's genius. It is not a set of variations in the traditional sense, for rather than weaving ornamental garlands around its simple theme, it dissects it in order to develop an entire encyclopaedia of pianism from its material.
Now András Schiff has followed up his prize-winning complete set of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas for ECM with a recording of the Diabelli Variations that is remarkable in many ways.

First, this Hungarian pianist combines the colossal variations with two other major late works from Beethoven's pianistic œuvre: the Sonata op. 111 and the Bagatelles op. 126 (the former having concluded of course his traversal of the complete Sonatas for ECM). This new recording impressively draws attention to these works' intrinsic ties to the Diabelli Variations. The Arietta theme in op. 111 and Diabelli's waltz are both set in C major in triple meter, and both begin with an upbeat. Still more striking are the identical intervals that define both themes: the descending 4th from C to G, and the descending 5th from D to G. Further, the bagatelles are far removed from what their title might seem to imply: they are Beethoven's final utterances on his preferred instrument. András Schiff has referred to them as aphorisms, as poetic as they are profound, and even calls the Fourth Bagatelle 'an almost demonic piece of astonishing modernity'.
But the recordings are remarkable for other reasons, too. Rather than using a modern Steinway, András Schiff has recorded them in two different versions on two period instruments. CD 1 (op. 111 and the Diabelli Variations) on an original Bechstein grand from 1921, the instrument preferred by Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel, and one in which András Schiff sees an almost forgotten sound-ideal. CD 2 (a second reading of the Diabelli Variations and the op. 126 Bagatelles) is recorded on a Hammerflügel fortepiano from Beethoven's own day which, with its extraordinary extra pedals, reveals the full rich panoply of the composer's sonic universe. This gives listeners a unique opportunity to compare these highly contrasting sonic universes with their rich range of sound, so very different from the balanced, disengaged sound of a modern day instrument.

Finally, András Schiff has been able to consult Beethoven's previously unknown original manuscript of the variations for his recording. Thanks to his initiative and support, this manuscript has been preserved among the holdings of the Bonn Beethoven House since 2009. More than any other source, it sheds light on the compositional process, with Beethoven's penmanship and writing speed offering subtle hints as to crescendos, tempos and arcs of tension. Not only does this source provide insight into the composer's workshop, it also forms an invaluable bridge to Beethoven's intentions.


Both discs are enthralling. In the sleeve notes Schiff makes an eloquent case for resisting what he sees as the 'globalisation' of piano music, in which everything is played on a Steinway. […] Anyone who heard the Wigmore recitals will recognise the cool clarity of the sound the Bechstein makes and the elegance Schiff achieves with it, whether in the transcendence of the last movement of Op 111 or the quicksilver changes of mood in the variations, but it's the version of the Diabelli on the 19th-century instrument that is the more remarkable.
That performance revels in the very lack of homogeneity in the soundworld of the instrument itself, with its distinctly different character in each register, and with the ability to change those characteristics using the four pedals. Balances and perspectives shift constantly within the music, and Schiff exploits the effects quite wonderfuly - thinning the sound to a silvery thread with the una corda pedal, producing a wonderfully veiled quality in the middle registers with the moderator, or a snarling buzz in the bass with the bassoon. The whole world of the variations opens out.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian

No pianist has a greater awareness of sound-colour than András Schiff. Here, he experiments by twice giving beautifully shaped readings of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, that extraordinariy wide-ranging sequence of fantasies: once on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano of 1820, once on a Bechstein grand of 1921. Each instrument shines its distinctive light on this music.
Stephen Pettitt, The Sunday Times

The predictably penetrating, intense playing of the mighty Diabellis on this disc is to be expected from Andras Schiff, but there's a twist: he does them twice, first on a 1921 Bechstein and then on a Hammerflügel fortepiano from Beethoven's era. The result is a primer on pianism, rounded out by Beethoven's final piano sonata and the Opus 126 Bagatelles.
Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times

Grosse Pianisten lassen sich deshalb viel Zeit mit den Diabelli-Variationen, sie studieren und spielen sie jahrzehntelang, bevor sie damit ins Aufnahmestudio gehen. András Schiff war 59 Jahre alt, als er den Schritt wagte. Und er wagte gleich noch etwas anderes: Er verschmähte den modernen Steinway-Flügel und zog zwei historische Instrumente vor, nämlich einen Bechstein von 1921, den schon Wilhelm Backhaus geschätzt hat, und ein Franz-Brodmann-Fortepiano (Wien 1820), das er aus dem Besitz von Jörg Ewald Dähler erworben und dem Beethovenhaus Bonn als Leihgabe zur Verfügung gestellt hat. Das ist ein Glücksfall, denn mit diesen beiden Wiedergaben gewinnen wir ein Moment von Intimität zurück, das ein übergrosser Konzertsaal und das gleichmacherische Klangbild moderner Flügel niemals erreichen können. Der runde, weiche Klang des Diskants beim Bechstein-Flügel und das unglaublich sonore Bassregister beim Wiener Brodmann-Fortepiano, ja überhaupt das Festhalten an unterschiedlichen Registertönungen bescheren dem Hörer wahre Wunder an Klangfarben und Anschlagsdifferenzierung. Selbst der durch Pausen betonte Gegensatz zwischen Forte-Akkorden und Piano-Antworten in Variation XIII bietet einen prachtvoll runden Raumklang; Vergleichsaufnahmen auf dem Steinway wirken nun geradezu blechern und schrill. […]Wie Schiff in der «Fughetta» (Nr. XXIV) und in der hochkomplexen Schlussfuge (Nr. XXXII) die Stimmeneinsätze und die Engführungen leuchtend klar herausarbeitet, zeigt Erfahrung und Format des gestandenen Bach-Interpreten. Aber er zeigt noch etwas, was viele andere Interpreten nicht in dem Masse kenntlich machen: Beethovens Humor. Sei es die «Don Giovanni»-Parodie (Nr. XXII), sei es jene Dampfwalze schon in Variation I, die den harmlosen Walzer gnadenlos platt macht, sei es die grimmige Aufblätterung der Motiv-Elemente, eines wahren Diabelli-Teilelagers, sei es aber auch jenes melancholische, schon entrückte Lächeln des abschliessenden «Tempo di Minuetto»: Ohne erdenschweren Tiefsinn findet Schiff die angemessene lichte Heiterkeit, die auf Wissen beruht. Eine Beethoven-Hommage auf Augenhöhe.
Hartmut Lück, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

He plays Beethoven's 'Diabelli Variations' twice, once on a 1921 Bechstein and again on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano circa 1820, an instrument in awesomely good condition. The differences are fascinating. The Bechstein offers fairly even brilliance across its range: Diabelli's theme trots like a glittering circus pony. The Brodmann colours are more mysterious, with greater subtleties in light and shade, generously displayed across the 'Variations' as well as Beethoven's Six Bagetelles.
Yet either piano's textures and reverberations would mean little without Schiff's artistry and intelligence. The 'Diabelli Variations' have never seemed so playfully filled with irony, comic pratfalls and the wild goose chase. Whatever instrument he uses, Schiff rewards the closest listening.
Geoff Brown, The Times

"I've been convinced of the success with which pianist and both instruments inhabit everything undertaken here. It's an impressive achievement." (Gramophone Editor's Choice December 2013)

"That performance revels in the very lack of homogeneity in the soundworld of the instrument itself, with its distinctly different character in each register...Balances and perspectives shift constantly within the music, and Schiff exploits the effects quite wonderfully...The whole world of the variations opens out" The Guardian, 3rd October 2013 *****

"No pianist has a greater awareness of sound-colour than Andras Schiff...The Brodmann, despite its relative lack of power, offers the broader palette. The Bechstein projects with greater strength and a beguiling singing tone." Sunday Times, 6th October 2013

"Something of a beauty contest is likely to ensue when the same work is played on two different instruments, and there is a surprising overall winner...[the Variations prove] more colourful and textural on the older instrument, with all its ticks, thuds and bell-like sweetness." The Independent on Sunday, 27th October 2013

"The differences are fascinating...Yet either piano's textures and reverberations would mean little without Schiff's artistry and intelligence...The Diabelli Variations have never seemed so playfully filled with irony, comic pratfalls and the wild goose chase. Whatever instrument he uses, Schiff rewards the closest listening." The Times, 1st November 2013 ****

"Schiff's passion for this music, and his ability to communicate it, is apparent in every bar...The two instruments he plays each have a lean tone and the interpretation of the Diabellis doesn't alter much. Played on the Bechstein, the work's close relationship to Op. obvious." BBC Music Magazine, Christmas Issue 2013 ****