The durability of Beethoven’s immense response (1823) to publisher Antonio Diabelli’s request (1819) for a variant on his trite waltz tune continues to astonish the keyboard world, since this “cobbler’s patchwork” unleashed in Beethoven a virtual storm of creative imagination, a union of musical extremes. Melvin Chen, a piano pupil of Seymour Lipkin and Boris Berman, recorded Beethoven’s 33 Variations and Fugue on a Steinway at Bard College late October/early November 2003, with masterful editing by Judith Sherman.
Chen plays the huge concept stylishly, attentive that Beethoven’s evolutions of the waltz range from the bagatelle and parodic to the Herculean, with more than a page from Bach’s polyphonic syntax. Marches and meditations, many of them chromatically audacious, make their way across the musical stage, some enhanced by wild ornaments, rocket-figures, and trills, or by the appearance of ungainly rests which throw the metric configuration into disarray, often looking forward to developments in later composers like Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Berg. That Mr. Chen can turn up the digital fireworks seems plain enough in the Allegro assai variant pursuant to Beethoven’s perversely brisk allusion to Mozart’s Notte e giorno faticar. Mr. Chen produces musical sparks without ungainly pounding of the piano, the bass often punctuating the original waltz motif amidst a flurry of transformative filigree, as in Variations 18 and 19, with their hints of Schumann. The whole group of variants at number 27-30, like the Fughetta at No. 24, demands power and digital accuracy, especially staccato and leggierissimo. The extensive Largo (Variation 31), however, plays as a disembodied sonata-movement, perhaps a recollection of one of Bach’s sarabandes. Mr. Chen holds the two fugues in lyrical check, neither overly demonic nor unduly staid. Some auditors may find Chen’s playing a bit scholastic, somewhat learned and lacking virile abandon, but it may preserve its shelf-life for precisely these qualities.
The six offerings from other composers whom Diabelli approached for variants play as a fashionable addendum to the Beethoven opus. None of the six pieces is 90 seconds long, but they reveal a similarity of conception in Hummel and Czerny, as well as the bravura in the youthful Liszt. Kalkbrenner’s has a Beethovenian timbre, cross-fertilized by one of Bach’s inventions. Moscheles and Schubert share a penchant for songful lyricism, the latter injecting that aura of melancholy of which he was a thorough interpreter. The Czerny variant at several points likens Diabelli to an ecossaise.
— Gary Lemco