“Diabelli Variations” – Andreas Staier, fortepiano – Harmonia mundi

by | Jul 20, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

“Diabelli Variations” [TrackList follows] – Andreas Staier, fortepiano – Harmonia mundi HMC 902091, 67:30 *****: 
If you’re looking for a recording of the Diabelli Variations on a pianoforte of Beethoven’s day, look no further than Andreas Staier’s brilliant new interpretation. But even if you’re not a diehard fan of original-instrument performances, you’ll want to consider this release not just for Staier’s superb, witty pianism but also for the selection of variations on an original waltz tune that music publisher Anton Diabelli elicited from fifty well-known Austrian composers and pianists. It presents a fascinating cross-section of musical taste and practice in Beethoven’s day and of course helps to shed additional light on the sheer genius of the Diabelli Variations.
The idea behind Diabelli’s scheme was to publish the requested variations in a volume the sale of which would benefit widows and orphans of the Napoleonic Wars. Michael Landenburger explains that “in order to have a representative sample of musicians, he approached composers, virtuoso performers, and noble dilettantes. . . . To this end he sent each of them a sheet of paper with the theme, which occupied four-fifths of the recto. The variation was to be written on the rest of the sheet, the whole then returned to him. Thus all the variations he received would have been roughly the same length.” (Only Beethoven, of course, managed to circumvent this clever constraint on the part of Diabelli.)
The composers that Staier chooses for his cross-section approach the theme in a variety of ways that offer a fascinating study in contrast—and a couple of surprises along the way. First, virtuoso Carl Czerny, producer of some of the most knuckle-busting piano studies up to his time, contributes a surprisingly gentle, frilly little take on Diabelli’s theme. Franz Liszt, aged eight or nine, spins a highly virtuosic minor-key storm of notes that sounds strangely old-fashioned, perhaps like the kind of improvisation Beethoven would have used to impress listeners at the start of his career. Franz X. W. Mozart’s variation bears no family resemblance at all to his father’s music; instead, Mozart fils seems to have learned a thing or two from Carl Maria von Weber. The now-unknown Joseph Kerzkowsky so transmogrifies Diabelli’s ditty as to make his variation a work unto itself (in the process making me want to know more about Joseph Kerzkowsky). Not unexpectedly, the finest contribution of all is Schubert’s, a fragile bittersweet piece characterized by the composer’s trademark oscillations betwixt major and minor modes.
Then we have Beethoven’s set of thirty-three variations, pointedly one more than appear in Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations. The writing of the piece consumed four years, the composer working intermittently on it while he completed his Missa Solemnis and late piano sonatas. Still, Beethoven managed to beat the other composers into print; the Diabelli Variations appeared in 1823, a year before the other Diabelli variations.
Staier’s interpretation is nothing less than revelatory, from the imperious march of Variation I through the feathery delicacy of Variation II to the poignant question and answer of Variation III, Staier establishes a thorough identification with the character of Beethoven’s music. There is so much to admire here, but some of the most revelatory moments come around twenty variations in, starting with the sotto voce mysteriousness of Variation XX. After this strange interlude come the tipsy changes of gear in Variation XXI, which Staier injects with a robust sense of humor. In Variation XXII, Beethoven famously quotes from Leparello’s first aria in Don Giovanni. Here, Staier pulls out one of his stops, if not all of them. Like other Viennese instruments of Beethoven’s day, the reproduction Conrad Graf fortepiano that Staier plays, a powerhouse among early pianos, features several stops that can be called on to add special coloration. For Variation XXII, perhaps thinking of a favorite bass-baritone in the role of Leparello, Staier calls appropriately enough on the bassoon stop. But it doesn’t produce a pleasing baritonal sound: more a fluttery sort of rasp—a pianistic duck call. But that isn’t all the tricks that Staier has up his sleeve. In the explosively virtuoso Variation XXIII that follows, he unleashes the Janissary stop: a jangling eruption of ersatz cymbals, triangle, and drum. That’ll wake you up, if you’re nodding off at this point!
Yet as Staier’s carefully modulated buildup of energy in the grand fugue of Variation XXXII reminds us, the humor that he brings to the piece is matched by deep musical insights the like of which you won’t find in any currently available period-instrument performance—and few modern-instrument performances, for that matter. Even if you already have several recordings of the work in your collection, even if you think you don’t “get” the Diabelli Variations, you owe it to yourself to hear Andreas Staier’s remarkable performance.
TrackList:
Aus 50 Veränderung über einen Walzer von Anton Diabelli (From 50 Variations on a Waltz of Anton Diabelli):
Anton Diabelli: Thema
Carl Czerny: Var. IV
Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Var. XVI
Friedrich Kalkbrenner: Var. XVIII
Joseph Kerzkowsky: Var. XX
Conradin Kreutzer: Var. XXI
Franz Liszt: Var. XXIV
Ignaz Moscheles: Var. XXVI
Johann Peter Pixis: Var. XXXI
Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart: Var. XXVIII
Franz Schubert: Var. XXXVIII
Andreas Staier: “Introduction”
Beethoven: 33 Veränderung über einen Walzer von Anton Diabelli (Diabelli Variations, Op. 120)
—Lee Passarella

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