BEETHOVEN: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 – Paul Lewis, piano – Harmonia mundi HMC 902071, 52:46 ****:
BEETHOVEN: Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 27 No. 1 (quasi una fantasia); Sonata in G Minor, Op. 49 No. 1; Sonata in G Major, Op. 49 No. 2; Six Variations on a Swiss Song in F Major, WoO 64; Sonatina in G Major, Anh. 5 No. 1; Sonatina in F Major, Anh. 5 No. 2; Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 (quasi una fantasia), “Moonlight” – Markus Schirmer, piano – Tacet 194, 59:37 [Distr. by Naxos] **1/2:
Two recordings highlight works from the beginning and end of Beethoven’s career as a piano composer. But one is let down by a wrongheaded performance.
These two discs offer piano works that bookend Beethoven’s composing career—that is, if the two Sonatinas Anh. 5 are indeed from Beethoven’s Bonn years and not just false attributions. If so, these programs take us from works that no one would even play today except that the Beethoven name is attached to them, to one of the towering fixtures of the piano repertoire.
But although the Diabelli Variations is perhaps the greatest set of piano variations ever written, it almost didn’t come about. In 1819, music publisher Anton Diabelli self-servingly wrote a waltz tune and invited the major composers of the Austrian Empire to contribute a single variation on this theme. At first, Beethoven seemed to think the project beneath his dignity, but he probably reconsidered as he saw the possibilities in the theme, as well as the challenge that writing a whole series of variations on it posed. What seemed to stimulate him, and the elements on which he concentrated, were the tune’s basic rhythmic pattern, enlivened by a “clever anacrusis” that helps prevent utter rhythmic predictability; a series of unexpected sforzandi (Beethoven’s own stock in trade); and a repeated descending figure in the right hand, which Beethoven turned into a series of swooping gestures in his set of variations.
The piece took four years to complete, Beethoven working intermittently on it while he completed his Missa Solemnis and late piano sonatas. When he finally offered the Variations for publication in 1823, Diabelli hailed the work as “a great and important masterpiece, worthy to be ranked with the imperishable creations of the old Classics [. . .and to occupy] a place beside Sebastian Bach’s famous masterpieces of the same type.” In fact, there is some evidence that Beethoven set himself the goal of outdoing, in his 33 variations, Bach’s 32 Goldberg Variations.
Like many pianists, Paul Lewis laid the groundwork for his foray into Beethoven’s crowning achievement for the keyboard, first performing and recording all 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven and the five concertos as well. The sonata recordings were showered with accolades, especially in the British press, and Lewis’s concerto series with Jirí Belohlávek and the BBC Symphony is generating positive buzz as well. I’m sorry to say I haven’t caught up with Paul Lewis on disc before now, but on the evidence of his Diabelli Variations, I’d say he’s a natural Beethoven player. Lewis studied with Alfred Brendel; I hear much of the leonine energy that Brendel is capable of, less of the patrician elegance that the Austrian pianist also exhibits. But Lewis is fully able to capture the range of expression in Beethoven’s work, from investing the off-rhythms of Variation No. 3 with a hypnotic energy to finessing the cantabile delicacy of Nos. 30 and 31. No. 23, marked Allegro assai, in Lewis’s hands has a demonic bent to it that makes me think of old Ludwig himself at the keyboard; I hope that doesn’t betray too cinematic an imagination on my part. No. 32, the fugal variation, is played with a ferocity that gives vent to some prominent vocalizations by the pianist, which I could have done without. But that’s one of the few adverse side effects of a big sonorous piano recording from the Teldex Studio in Berlin. Another is a touch of clangor in the treble, which may be a function of the instrument Lewis performs on.
Also, since the notes to the recording mention the affinity between Op. 120 and the Bagatelles Op. 126, it would have been nice if Lewis had included that work as a makeweight. Offering some additional music seems to be the rule rather than the exception in recent recordings. For example, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s fine version of Op. 120 on Decca includes the appealing Variations WoO 71. But except for these few niggles (and they are niggling), I find Lewis’s recording one of the most recommendable versions of Beethoven’s classic that I’ve heard in quite a while.
Markus Schirmer’s interesting program of mixed piano works is less recommendable for an unexpected reason: the most famous work on the bill of fare, the Moonlight Sonata, receives one of the deadliest performances I’ve heard. The problem seems to arise from Schirmer’s conception of the piece as cited in the notes to the recording: “For Markus Schirmer, the ‘Moonlight Sonata’. . .is a three-movement mediation on the subject of mourning. He interprets [the] Adagio as a paralyzing hopelessness transformed into sound; in a talk he mentioned the image of a completely still lake, as smooth as glass, that surges up within him during this music.”
I won’t debate whether a still lake can surge up, but at any rate the upshot is a musical dead zone—eight-plus minutes of excruciatingly lifeless playing. Schirmer’s second and third movements are unexceptionable, but after a start like that, it’s impossible to recover. A pity really, since the Moonlight’s far less famous brother, Op. 27 No. 1, is given a sparkling performance, while the early sonatinas and variations have all the charm they need in order to make their modest points. Very fine piano sound from Tacet as well, but the soggy Moonlight Sonata throws a wet blanket on the project.
— Lee Passarella
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