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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations in C major on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op.120 (1822-23) [49:01]
12 Variations in A major on the Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky’s Ballet Das Waldmädchen.WoO 71 (1796) [10:55]
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. 29 July-2 August 2006, Potton Hall, Suffolk, England
DECCA 475 8401 [59.59] 

 


Vladimir Ashkenazy's unique association with Decca, both as a pianist and conductor, has lasted an amazing 44 years (since 1963), which is longer than any other living artist. To mark his 70th year, Decca has released the only major solo piano work that Ashkenazy had yet to record - the Diabelli Variations. For the celebrations we also have ‘A Personal Collection’ to look forward to - a multi-disc set of Ashkenazy’s own choice of his best recordings as pianist and conductor, and the completion of his cycle of Shostakovich Symphonies with new recordings of Symphonies 13 and 14 with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo.

The story is well known of how music publisher Anton Diabelli invited 51 composers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, what he called the ‘Patriotic Association of Artists’, to write a variation on a waltz of his own composition. Having a hunt through the catalogue, and indeed popping the words ‘Beethoven Diabelli’ into the search function of this site, and you will see that there is a great deal of choice when it comes to this titanic masterpiece of the composer’s and pianist’s art. This new and festive release from Ashkenazy ticks all of the boxes when it comes to sound quality. I’ve been having fun setting up a new sound system in one of the rooms at my secondary workplace – a big PA which has to be audible during lessons in which 6 drum kits played by hormonal teenagers are going at full tilt. Good piano recordings show up distortion instantly through such systems, and I drove this CD to its limits and had a ball. The Potton Hall acoustic is roomy without being swampy, and the piano has rich deep lows and a sparkling, nicely rounded treble – distinctly non-fatiguing, which is a definite boon in this mighty piece. 

Looking at a few timings, and Ashkenazy wastes no time with excessively drawn out interpretations. At 49 minutes he is certainly not the shortest, but Peter Hill takes 59 on his 1990 Unicorn recording, and one of my favourites, Sviatoslav Richter playing live in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1986, comes in at just over 52 minutes. Ashkenazy’s technique is well up to scratch, and I detected few if any clues to his advancing years. This, if anything, is the only possible reason some listeners might feel a little let down: expecting profound and moving statements from an elder statesman of the keyboard, we are more often instead given fun, wit and exuberance. Accepting that the twinkle in the pianist’s eye is reflected in almost every aspect of his performance, one can sit back and enjoy the ride – one full of immaculate twists and turns, full of Beethovenian dramas and manic obsessive drive, some superb boogie-woogie octaves, and light and dark in both measured equality and spontaneous surprise. My feeling is that Ashkenazy meets the spirit of Beethoven head on, his playing nose-to-nose with the composer’s inspiration, which, given his opinion of the original theme as “a shoemaker’s patch”, might even have come as something of a surprise to the man himself. If you want to sense the centre of this experience, try the 24th variation Fughetta: deceptive simplicity which arches through the subsequent Allegro into the counterpoint of the 26th variation and achieves a climax in the following Vivace of No.27 – all within five minutes, and breathtaking stuff in Ashkenazy’s hands. 

The Wranitzky Variations is the work of a younger Beethoven: lighter and more Haydnesque. Haydn had in fact also used this theme from Anton Wranitzky’s ballet in the 1770s, both composers seeming to want to pay tribute to the now little-known Moravian conductor/composer. This piece tends to pop up only on complete editions or compilations, so its inclusion here makes for an imaginative filler, played with admirable lightness of touch and wit by Ashkenazy. 

As with all great art, you will always want more than one version of a piece like the Diabelli Variations. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s reading is filled with energy and joy in the music, revelling in the extremes of Beethoven’s response to the simple tune without imposing the artifice of wilful individuality onto the interpretation of the notes. It is in no way a ‘Beethoven-Lite’ recording, but it does seem to inject a refreshingly imponderous view on the music – respectful of the composer’s intentions, but not over-heated or overly reverend. I have the feeling Beethoven would have liked it, and that’s good enough for me.

Dominy Clements



 

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