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Beethoven Diabelli Variations revisited
Schnabel to Battersby & Uri Caine









This is an interim report to welcome three recordings of one of my favourite musical works, one which I should have to be include in any listing game of top dozen etc (maybe readers would be interested to think about theirs, for a future compilation article at Christmas?) Whose is your favourite Diabelli and why? Please write to tell Musical Pointers.

Schnabel's account from 1937 (the first recording ever) is a benchmark must for serious collectors. He never fails to engross me, and the Op 126 Bagatelles was one of my treasured sets of 78s back in my youth.

Edmund Battersby's double CD for Naxos is a landmark in the Diabelli's recording history. In one inexpensive package, you can hear it on a modern copy of a Graf from Beethoven's time and for comparison on a modern Steinway.

We were thrilled, finishing restored and exhausted after listening this evening to the fortepiano verion straight through, not comparatively as planned for reviewing. My first reaction is that Battersby is so compelling on his own fortepiano that the other disc might be redundant. I've got to the state now of thinking of Steinway performances of classics & early romantics as 'transcriptions'!

Battersby tantalises us with his discoveries in the course of the project; he found the music - - 'less abstract & more instrumental - - unveiled enhanced possibilities on the modern piano' etc. There was plenty of spare space on three of the English language pages in the booklet for him to have vouchsafed us more detail about that?

I hope that Musical Pointers may be able to publish a fuller comparative review after Paul Komen's recording of Schnabel's coupling (recorded on Beethoven's own Graf at Bonn) has been heard too.

For the time being, I urge readers to acquire the Battersby double, superbly close-recorded for home listening. It carries a thoughtful track-by-track analysis for listeners by Lia Jensen of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. [Fuller review by Elena Vorotko, see below.]

Edmund Battersby playing his Graf/Regier fortepiano

I have previously reviewed the Diabelli Variations many times, e.g.

Sokolov - - displaying in all their variety and vitality Beethoven's virtuosic resourcefulness in treating the little theme and raising it to undreamt of heights

Pollini - - storms through imperiously, maintains steady tempi through individual variations, and does not seek to reveal Beethoven's wit - - take-it-or-leave-it Beethoven, straight in your face - - If you don't have a Diabelli yet - - do yourself a favour and purchase two versions - not this one alone.

Roberts - - an untiring performance traversing all of Beethoven's moods and with every mark of articulation and dynamics respected. No blurring of passage work or evasions of difficulties in the more extreme passages, everything lucid and given without suggestion that it was "my Diabelli".

But see also:

Edmund Battersby investigates Beethoven's 33 Variations on the Waltz by Diabelli (Op 120) on both a modern Steinway Piano (NY 1976) and a Fortepiano (Conrad Graf 1820 copy, R.J. Regier 1997). He bases his approach on his experience that many of the piece's interpretative puzzles seemed to him to be solved by the qualities of the 'correct' instrument. (Elena Vorotko)

[Anderszewski] I had failed to share the general enthusiasm for Anderszewski's unremittingly serious recording of the Diabelli Variations, which lacked the element of humour that Brendel reveals, but this recital left me wishing to hear him play it again, perhaps at Cheltenham where he is comfortable and relaxed.

[Mikhail Pletnev] has demonstrated a devotion to exhaustive exploration of his chosen composers - - a fascinating double-CD of smaller Beethoven works (DG 457 493-2) - -. Op.111 is a high point of the thrilling record of his Carnegie Hall debut recital in New York (DG 471 157-2). I would be especially keen to hear his interpretation of the Diabelli variations, which I would anticipate might encapsulate Pletnev's unique combination of seriousness and playfulness.

A dissenting opinion: [Herschkovitz] Herschkowitz's chief heroes were Beethoven and Webern - - in a discussion of bad music by his greatest classical hero, he includes the Diabelli Variations - "if works are bad, it is wrong to play them." !!

and don't miss:

Uri Caine's Arrangements and improvisations after 33 Variations in C on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 by Ludwig van Beethoven (for Erard fortepiano & Concerto Köln)
Listen to two tracks

Komen's CD awaited from Bonn


© Peter Grahame Woolf