Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Fifteen Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in E flat major, Op 35 ‘Eroica’ [25:33]
Twelve Variations on the ‘Menuett à la Viganò’ from Jakob Haibel’s Le nozze disturbate, WoO 68 [13:26]
Twelve Variations on the Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky’s Ballet Waldmädchen, WoO 71 [11:10]
Ten Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ from Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff [9:44]
Eight Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ from Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s Soliman II [8:14]
Six Variations in D major, Op 76 [6:13]
Ian Yungwook Yoo (piano)
rec. 25-26 July 2008, Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto, Canada
NAXOS 8.572160 [74:18]
The cover presents a striking image: the conquering hero, immortalized in stone, looks out over a sea of fire. He stands alone against the flames, boldly unconcerned. It is a wonderful image of Beethoven the warrior, the master of musical struggles.
The contents of this CD come from a very different side of Beethoven. This recital showcases Beethoven’s witty side, his penchant for virtuosic invention, and his growth as a creative mind. These are six sets of themes and variations, only two of them published. The other four are early works which reveal the genesis of ideas and techniques which would later become the composer’s mainstays. Any lover of Beethoven ought to hear this.
Pianist Ian Yungwook Yoo, who is qualified for the job by his first-prize triumph at the 2007 Beethoven Competition in Bonn, tackles the legendary ‘Eroica’ variations first. He is clearly an advocate of ‘big,’ old-fashioned pianism, and the powerfully sustained opening chord establishes this immediately. But he also sets free his inhibitions, indulges Beethoven’s violent dynamic changes (3:27-3:43), lets the left hand interrupt lyrical moments such as that at 7:00, and matches Beethoven’s playfulness smile-for-smile in variations like the one beginning at 5:21. This is supreme musical mischievousness!
The bulk of the CD is concerned with unpublished variations on themes by other composers. None of these writers are remembered with anything like the fondness we have for Beethoven, and (as with the Diabelli Variations) we can safely say that Beethoven’s achievements with these variations exceed the originals in every case. Salieri’s opera Falstaff has been recorded several times, including performances on Chandos and Hungaroton and even a DVD, but none of the “originals” to the other works here have been recorded. Indeed the catalogues at Arkivmusic and MDT have no listings at all for CDs of music by Jakob Haibel.
The primary interest of these works is as a fascinating catalog of Beethoven’s early treatment of the variation format. Theme-and-variations was arguably the central form of the composer’s career: consider the mighty variation movements in the Third, Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, the piano sonatas opp. 109 and 111, and the monumental Diabelli set. If you are at all fond of those works, you should listen to the early Beethoven variations, for they really do provide great insights into his evolving language and his way of creating something stupendous out of nothing.
I say “nothing” because one of the insights on offer here is that Beethoven consciously chose bare, bland, maybe even poor themes for his variations. The Diabelli waltz theme is, in that sense, perfect for Beethoven’s purpose: if you set it alongside Wranitzky’s dull Russian Dance, or Haibel’s genial but forgettable minuet, or (dare I say it) the Eroica tune, you see that they really are all cut from the same cloth; the rhythmic similarity between Diabelli’s theme and Salieri’s is truly striking. The themes are canvases on which Beethoven paints; in fact they are rather cheap canvases from the supermarket chosen in order to demonstrate all the more clearly that the credit belongs solely to the painter.
Typical of this style is the Haibel set: immediately, with the first variation, Beethoven leaps into a wholly different mood and style. Not for him the classical-era plan of simply ornamenting the tune with little decorations, then having the left and right hands switch, then altering the melody by one or two notes. Beethoven leaps in at the deep end. Already we can hear his adventurousness and his conception of variations as transformative. This structure will be taken to more profound heights in works like the last piano sonata but even in the 1790s Beethoven was writing “theme and transformations”.
The first variation of the Wranitzky set is more conventional, but in exactly five minutes the theme is rendered completely unrecognizable and the work becomes wholly Beethoven’s. And there are vintage Beethoven moments all through these early works, like his habit - to be highlighted in the piano and orchestral Eroica variations - of leaving melodies hanging confidently in midair halfway through, pausing, and then rolling in with the resolutions. The luminous Wranitzky variation at about 3:35 presages some of Beethoven’s transcendent writing in the last sonatas; the fact that Beethoven cannot even wait until Salieri’s theme is over before beginning to toy with it brought a smile to my face. The Salieri set, although a bit monotonous, does introduce the classically Beethovenian idea of bringing back the original theme at the end, subtly transformed. The ‘Turkish march’ variations Op 76 make a delightful encore.
The only real competitors in this quiet corner of the Beethoven repertoire are Alfred Brendel on Brilliant Classics, John Ogdon on EMI, Ronald Brautigam on Globe, and Gianluca Cascioli on DG, though the last two are quite hard to find and indeed the latter is out of print. Florian Uhlig on Hänssler has recently recorded the Wranitzky set. The unpublished variations are probably not interesting enough to merit duplicating if you already have one of those recordings, although I should point out that Brendel omits the Haibel and none of them can match the Naxos sound quality.
There are many Eroica variations out there, and everyone will have a favorite (Gilels looms large), but Ian Yungwook Yoo really does bring everything to this performance: showmanship, drama, great wit, playfulness, sensitivity (8:59-10:02, 15:11-17:20), and superb technique. He is recorded in finer sound than any competitor, although you will want to turn the volume up. He is less sober than Bernard Roberts on Nimbus, more ‘grand’ and romantic than Jenö Jandó, and a full three minutes slower than Brendel, to Yoo’s advantage; Brendel treats the humorous and merely virtuosic variations with one fleet-fingered, undifferentiated style.
For Beethoven lovers and aficionados his early variations are essential listening and have greatly aided me in my listening to his late masterworks in the genre. If you are a casual fan, you may find this music to be of less obvious interest, since so much of it is light, witty, and clever, rather than fiery as the cover might imply. It is not ‘vintage Beethoven’ by any means. But hints of ‘vintage Beethoven’ are to be heard in every work, and that is why real devotees of the composer will find this volume fascinating.
The birth of Beethoven, before our ears.