There are 98 recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1822) in the current Arkiv Catalogue (accessed 19/03/19). I guess that there must be dozens of historical recordings that have not [yet] been remastered and reissued. It is a phenomenal number. I admit straightaway that I have not compared recordings for this review. Beethoven is not my preferred composer, so when I do listen to his music, it is likely to be an ‘old favourite.’ And if I were to want to hear to the current work for pleasure it would be in the Alfred Brendel recording released in 1990. It is simply an age/historical thing!
I reviewed this work played by Christina Bjørkoe, also on the Danacord label (DACOCD747), for MusicWeb International. I looked back at that assessment and realised that I had highlighted the fact that her playing time was 72:31, whereas Brendel clocked in at 52: 36. I noted that Bjørkoe seemed to play every repeat. I am not a Beethoven scholar, so I am not sure what the currently accepted attitudes are with regard to these ‘repeats’ in the context of the Diabelli Variations. All I remember is that it made a long work. On the other hand, Bjørkoe’s performance did catch my imagination, despite its length. Gustav Piekut’s reading is just under the hour, so I guess it is more traditional in duration.
Just to remind the listener of the historical background of the Diabelli Variations. The work resulted as a commission from the composer/publisher Anton Diabelli for a single variation from each of thirty-three composers. The proceeds of the volume were to go to the widows of fallen soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars. It was to be based in a short piece in waltz time that he (Diabelli) had composed. This theme has been described as ‘banal’, ‘trite’ and ‘a beer hall waltz’: it is certainly no masterpiece. Unfortunately for poor old Diabelli, Beethoven declined the offer to provide a contribution, but then decided to write all 33 variations himself! What happened to the original concept: did Schubert, Czerny and Hummel contribute? The answer is Yes! It comprises Part II of Vaterländischer Künstlerverein and ended up with variations contributed by 51 composers, many of whom are now long-forgotten. Part I was Beethoven’s offering, composed during 1819 and revised in 1822-23.
Tradition has it that composing the Variations “amused Beethoven to a rare degree” and that it was written “in a rosy mood” that was “bubbling with unusual humour” (Anton Schindler cited by Alfred Brendel). Even a non-Beethoven enthusiast like myself can see that the theme has potential, despite its ordinariness. Beethoven created a work that evolves from the opening tune. This is a cumulative piece: not one that can have odd variations extracted for standalone performance. So, really, the listener must dedicate an hour of his or her life, sit down, and attend from start to finish. Beethoven extracts virtually everything of value from the ‘theme’: this includes harmonic devices, rhythms and melodic phrases. Virtually every pianistic device known to composers of Beethoven’s generation, including nods to J.S. Bach, fughetta, tremolos, octaves and a powerful balance between ‘advanced’ dissonance and naïve triadic harmonies are presented. But overall, what a listener expects, and the pianist must provide is a consistent narrative that somehow moulds this massive collection of seemingly disparate music into a powerful synthesis. This fusion must lead towards the massive fugue – the penultimate variation. For me, Gustav Piekut manages to present the whole structure, the continuity and the technical virtuosity of these variations with power, grace, humour and understanding.
I was disappointed with the liner notes. Firstly, they are printed in an eye-watering yellow font on a black background. Why do record companies go for the ‘arty’ rather than for ‘utility’? The actual notes are short, but they are succinct and give the potential listener all the information required including a brief biography of the pianist. They are given in Danish and English.
I have not come across Gustav Piekut before. According to the CD flyer, he is hot property “as one of the most interesting young classical musicians in Scandinavia”. Piekut was born in 1995 (making him 24 this year) and made his debut aged 12 with the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra. He has won a slew of awards including the Dublin International Piano Competition and the Aarhus International Competition in 2017. He gained 1st Prize at the Danish National Steinway Piano Festival ‘three consecutive times.’ He now regularly travels across Europe giving recitals and playing concertos. The present disc is his debut recording.
It is a tall order to play what Alfred Brendel has described as “the greatest of all piano works”. I am not sure I agree with the final part of this analysis, but I get his point. But taking his opinion at face value, the present performance is certainly worthy of Brendel’s accolade.