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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Thirty-three variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 (1823)
Paul Lewis (piano)
rec. December 2009, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902071 [52:46]

Experience Classicsonline

The British pianist, Paul Lewis, has already established a significant reputation as one of the foremost Beethoven interpreters currently before the public. His cycle of the complete piano sonatas, recorded between 2005 and 2007, is widely regarded as one of the best in the catalogue and last year his recordings of the five piano concertos were warmly received, here and elsewhere. Now he has followed all these distinguished recordings by committing Beethoven’s late and large-scale set of variations to disc.

In 1819 Anton Diabelli invited a number of composers, of whom Beethoven was one, to compose one variation each on a waltz tune he had written. Beethoven, who was working on the Missa Solemnis at the time, made some sketches but, understandably, was preoccupied with bigger things and took the matter no further. However, he didn’t forget about Diabelli’s challenge completely and three years later, in 1822, he began to work on the idea in earnest. Diabelli’s theme is an unassuming one and most composers might have got a few variations out of it. However, once Beethoven’s imagination was fired he went to work with a vengeance and eventually produced a set of no less than thirty-three variations and a work that takes some fifty minutes to perform.

The result is a huge challenge to any pianist but Paul Lewis takes all the difficulties in his stride, as you’d expect. At this level one pretty much takes a flawless technique for granted and Lewis certainly has that but in addition the player must imbue the music with light and shade and be fully attentive to Beethoven’s dynamic markings and accents. Lewis does all of that and, in addition, phrases the music imaginatively. He omits a handful of repeats but these omissions are not especially consequential.

I don’t know on what piano Lewis plays – a Steinway, I suspect – but the instrument has an excellent tone. In particular the bass end has a full, rich sound, though the sound is never woolly. That bass firmness is noticeable, for example, in the increasingly tempestuous Variation VII, which Lewis projects strongly and positively. Very few of the variations are in a slow tempo and the energy and rhythmic vitality that Lewis imparts to the quick music is admirable – Variation XVII is a good example of this, as is Variation IX, which is played in a resolute fashion, in accordance with the composer’s marking. But much though I admire the way Lewis delivers the quicker music – his lightness of touch in Variation II or his dexterity in Variation XXVII, for example – it’s his way with the more thoughtful variations that impressed me most of all.

In Variation XIV, the first slow variation, he brings gravitas and poise. Later, when Beethoven provides a brief moment of repose in Variation XX, the slow-moving chords are expertly weighted. The gentle Fughetta, which is Variation XXIV, finds Lewis voicing all the lines with great and very natural clarity. His playing in this variation has a lovely limpid quality and his use of rubato is particularly skilful and imaginative. Again, his delicacy in Variation XXIX is admirable. Variation XXXI, the Largo, is outstanding. Here Lewis plays Beethoven’s decorative writing in the right hand in a most expressive way, placing the decorations beautifully. This variation has, perhaps, the deepest music in the whole work and Lewis gets to the heart of the matter.

Beethoven uses Diabelli’s little waltz as the basis for a compositional tour de force. The theme is the point of departure for much imaginative writing yet, as with all good sets of variations, the listener can feel that the theme remains ‘visible’ no matter where Beethoven’s imagination takes us. It seems to me that Paul Lewis has the full measure of the work; Beethoven takes his listener on something of a voyage of discovery and Lewis is a fine guide.

This very fine reading enhances still further Paul Lewis’s reputation as a leading and thoughtful Beethoven interpreter. It’s a disc that fully lives up to expectations.

John Quinn

see also review by Brian Wilson





































































































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