BEETHOVEN: 33 Variations in C on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120; 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126 – Gary Cooper, fortepiano – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 29110, 74:09 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***:

The background story to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is well known. Vienna-based composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli wrote a little waltz tune and invited the major composers of Austria to contribute a single variation on this theme, the sum total to be published in a volume the sale of which would benefit widows and orphans of the Napoleonic Wars. Among others, Schubert, Czerny, Hummel, Moscheles, and even the seven-year-old Franz Liszt contributed to the project.

Why Beethoven, in response to the request, produced his grand set of thirty-three variations is something of a mystery. The early versions of the tale had Beethoven refusing to set the tune at all, objecting to its triteness, but then taking up Diabelli’s offer when he understood that a generous cash dividend would crown the enterprise. The tale is probably apocryphal. Gary Cooper’s theory in his notes to the current recording is probably about right: pondering Diabelli’s banal little tune, Beethoven probably came to see the possibilities in it and set himself the challenge of deconstructing the theme and using various parts of it, as well as its basic rhythmic pattern, as brief germs or mottos that he could then exploit in his series of variations. He didn’t take the task lightly; Diabelli issued his challenge in 1819, and Beethoven worked on his variations over the next four years, alternating with work on the Missa Solemnis and the late piano sonatas, finishing only in the spring of 1823.

Why Beethoven wrote a total of thirty-three variations is also a matter for critical head scratching. It probably has something to do with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which Beethoven was known to have admired. Back’s work contains thirty-two variations, and Beethoven had himself earlier (in 1806) written a set of 32 Variations on an Original Theme. Possibly, Beethoven wanted to outdo both old Bach and himself with his latest grandest theme and variations. In any event, the result is a set of variations that is ranked along with Bach’s as the greatest such works for the keyboard.

While in his notes Cooper waxes a bit too poetical in his tribute to Beethoven the artist, his analysis of the work itself is skillfully done and makes for good reading. However, I find his performance of the Diabelli Variations to be less than totally satisfying. For me, a big part of the problem is the 1822 Anton Walter and Sohn pianoforte that he chooses to play. To an extent, Cooper is right when he opines, “pianos of this period have everything to do with colour, while at the same time having very little to do with sheer power, brilliance of clarity, or a capacity to sustain effortlessly. . . .” But the instrument he has chosen is especially soft-voiced and plagent in tone, almost at times recalling a clavichord more than a piano. And some of the sonorities it produces are downright odd; Variation XXII, based on Mozart’s Notte e giorno faticar from Don Giovanni, has a comb-and-paper rasp that does neither Beethoven nor Mozart any favors. In some of the swifter and more rhythmically challenging numbers such as Variation II, it seems as though the keys are sticking and that notes are thus dropping by the wayside—probably not true but rather an effect of that lack of “a capacity to sustain effortlessly.”

One has to be ready for big differences between a performance on an original piano and a modern grand, of course, but in some cases the differences are almost too much to take. Comparing Cooper’s performance to that of Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca, I find that the character of some of the variations seems radically different, and I almost always want to hear them as Ashkenazy and his grand render them. For example, with Ashkenazy, Variation VII has a near-demonic quality that sounds more Beethovenian than the pearly tones that emerge from Cooper’s Walter fortepiano.

Part of the issue is that Cooper’s instrument can’t produce those wide dynamic contrasts that we’ve come to think of as particularly Beethovenian, and I do miss them. But Cooper is incorrect when he says that his recording is the first to attempt to place Beethoven’s masterwork in the sound world of the 1820s. There is a recording on Naxos by Edmund Battersby playing a reproduction of an 1823 Graf fortepiano. (An 1825 Graf was the last piano that Beethoven owned.) From what I’ve heard of Battersby’s performance, the Graf is capable of handling dynamic contrasts better, and it seems capable of delivering more powerful sound. At first I thought there was more muscle behind Battersby’s performance, but now I’m fairly convinced the difference lies in the pianos involved.

Apart from the instrument Cooper has chosen, however, I find little to take issue with interpretively. His tempi seem judiciously chosen, given the fortepiano’s aforementioned limitations, and within the limited expressive range of the instrument he manages to capture the multifarious emotions of the work well. Certainly, Cooper is able to exploit the colors of the instrument to such an extent that the resulting sounds are often pleasingly exotic to ears accustomed to the modern grand; the sun-dashed waterfall of sounds that he makes of Variation X is a case in point.

On the other hand, Cooper doesn’t seem to have warmed to Beethoven’s last set of Bagatelles. There’s an emotional detachment here, a tendency to barrel through, as in No. 4 marked Presto, where the middle section is taken at the same basic tempo though the character of the music is markedly different and would thus benefit from a tempo adjustment.

Channel Classics’ recording, set down in a Dutch church, seems to reproduce Cooper’s instrument faithfully and with just the right touch of resonance to give it a healthy glow, if not an outright sheen. But for me, this is only a partially successful program, and I have too many reservations to give it a wholehearted recommendation.

— Lee Passarella