BEETHOVEN: Various Piano Variations = Alfred Brendel, p. – Tuxedo

BEETHOVEN: Various Piano Variations = 7 Variations on a Theme by Peter Winter in F Major, WoO 75; 24 Variations on an Arietta by Vincenzo Righini in D Major, WoO 65; 5 Variations on “Rule Britannia” in D Major, WoO 79; 7 Variations on “God Save the King” in C Major, WoO 78; 12 Variations on the Russian Dance by Paul Wranitzky in A Major, WoO 71; Fantasy in g minor, Op. 77 – Alfred Brendel, piano – Tuxedo TUXCD 1060, 61:07 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Tuxedo issues vintage Beethoven inscriptions from 1960 by Alfred Brendel (b. 1931) who has become something of a cult figure among contemporary pianists.  Many would argue that Brendel of the so-called “Vox years” took risks and made more exciting music than he did in his maturity. The diverse sets of variations Brendel performs, composed 1790-1808, demonstrate Beethoven’s fluent and playful approach to his own keyboard improvisation, a genre that would secure Beethoven’s position as a practicing virtuoso and a composer readily flexible to appeal to an admiring public.

A good case in point, Beethoven’s 1803 Variations on Thomas Arne’s “Rule Britannia” and the contemporaneous Variations on “God Save the King” combine brilliant antics within the frame of a four-square melody but offer tunes and effects Beethoven would incorporate into his “occasional” piece, Wellington’s Victory. Typical of Beethoven, he takes each of the two series into minor keys, canon, and martial antics with a sturdy finesse that can persuade as well as rally our inherent jingoism.  The sturdy bass tones in the last pages of “God Save the King” resonate with regal power.

Beethoven found an early vehicle (1799) for his gifts in the opera Das unterbrochene Opterfest by the Mannheim composer Peter Winter.  The vocal quartet “Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen” provides the impetus for a three-section format by Beethoven, in which the latter two stages become bravura demonstration of energetic runs, light staccato scales, and syncopations. Often, the filigree and texture point to Mozart and Haydn as models. The last development combines a chamber-music ethos with a natural gift for the dance. Brendel’s upper register legerdemain makes this under-rated set of variants worth more listens.  Of equal note, Beethoven’s transmutations (1791) of Righini’s tune “Venni amore” proffer the largest set of variations on the present disc. The original version of Beethoven’s score has been lost, so the present (1802) edition must suffice as some indication what embellishments Beethoven invented for the prior skeleton. The actual tune seems harmless enough, but Beethoven coaxes and even terrorizes it into conformity with his alternately grandiose and strict contrapuntal visions.  Righini, by the way, had served as Maitre de Chapelle at the court of Friedrich Wilhelm II in 1792.

We know from the Rasoumovsky Quartets what Beethoven could accomplish with a Russian tune. His 1797 treatment of a dance from the ballet Das Waldmaedchen by Paul Wranitzky proves almost as ambitious in scale as his response to Righini.  Likely, Beethoven heard the music first from the hands of violinist Jarnovic, who had played the tune sixteen times in Vienna, and the tune found another acolyte in Haydn. The Variations on the Russian Dance open with an ingenuous, quasi-gavotte in A Major that Beethoven soon exploits for its liquid and cadential possibilities, occasionally wandering into minor keys. The progressions often imitate aspects of Beethoven bagatelle sensibility, even invoking a music-box sensibility from Brendel’s idiomatic performance.

The g minor Fantasie (1808) stands in a class by itself, a real tour de force Beethoven improvised and then submitted to Muzio Clementi.  Besides its various contrasting sections, the piece wanders from a swooping, descending scale to a culmination in a bright B Major that covers seven variations. The hymn-like theme consistently forecasts both the Choral-Fantasia and the last movement of the Ninth Symphony.  Brendel’s inflamed performance joins those of Edwin Fischer and Rudolf Serkin for directness and focus of energetic color. Even the fermate and pregnant pauses project a sense of air or luft in the course of marvelous insight into Beethoven’s buoyant, ferocious imagination.

—Gary Lemco

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