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  Classical Editor: Rob Barnett  
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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 (1819-23, two performances).
Edmund Battersby (Graf fortepiano/piano).
rec. Performing Arts Centre, Country Day School, King City, Ontario, Canada, 23-29 Aug 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557384/85 [51'47 + 50'44]


A fascinating idea – two performances of the Diabelli Variations, one on a modern grand piano, the other on a 1997 replica of an 1825 Conrad Graf fortepiano.

Edmund Battersby's playing is new to me, and he is clearly a musical interpreter. Whether he is equipped for this particular Everest is another matter; presumably it is no accident that there is a picture of a mountain on the front cover of the product!

Just how musicologically sound this venture can be is open to debate. As will be seen from my comments the fortepiano account is the most successful – on this occasion. But time and time again there was the niggling feeling that this is simply because Battersby feels more comfortable on that instrument than on a concert grand, and the preferences could easily be reversed if another keyboardist were playing ... 

The fortepiano is recorded closely – this is not a criticism, more a statement that it makes the experience rather involving. As a performance, at times Battersby could be more playful (Variation 2) or more assured (the trill-dominated Variation 6), but this is clearly a well thought-through interpretation. The acciaccaturas of Variation 9 work better on the fortepiano than on the piano; more shocking, if you will. Battersby has the musical wherewithal to project Variation 14 (Grave e maestoso) as the axis on which the entire variation set turns. Occasionally he over-emphasises contrasts, but to good effect: the dark Variation 20 brings out the light of the ensuing one. Only Variation 10 (Presto) is surely miscalculated, sounding quite funny, like a silent-film accompaniment.

The modern grand 'alternative' is interesting. Variation 18, for example (Poco moderato) proves conclusively that Battersby cannot quite enter into that late Beethovenian expanded mode of thought; his Variation 31 is better in this respect. On a recording level, a touch more depth of bass would have been perfect.

Chording can be literal, and this matters especially in Variation 20; so successfully shaded on fortepiano. Repeated notes can sound awkward now, and the acciaccaturas of Variation 9 emerge as softened. The performance starts off as if Battersby is going to make the most of the instrument's capabilities – the Theme is less jolly, with explosive sforzandi.

This is a laudable enterprise, and the notes by Lia M .Jensen, affiliated to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, set the seal on its musicological integrity. The booklet even includes a select bibliography. A set that certainly asks questions.

Colin Clarke







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