I was enthusiastic about reviewing this disc, and not only because of Gerard Willem’s reputation as a Beethoven performer after his recording of the 32 sonatas and the five concertos.
All of Willem’s Beethoven recordings make a big deal of the Australian-made instrument used, and one of the treats I had while on a short concert tour in Australia in 2004 was to hear a demonstration of an impressive Stuart & Sons piano at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I won’t go into a technical essay about the innovations which make this different to the concert grand pianos we’re used to hearing in Europe and elsewhere, other than to indicate that it has to do with the way the strings are connected to the bridge, affecting the transfer of the vibration to the soundboard. The piano used in this recording of the Diabelli Variations is also interesting in having 102 keys instead of the usual 88, and the extra notes in the bass, though not used in this repertoire, do have their effect on the resonant qualities of the instrument.
I really like Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording of the Diabelli Variations (see review), and the rich Decca recording shows the Steinway & Sons piano in a fine light. Immediate A/B comparison is tricky, with a more resonant acoustic for the ABC recording, but it soon becomes clear that this Stuart & Sons piano is one capable of packing a huge amount of ‘welly’. At first I wasn’t sure if the ABC recording was doing the instrument too many favours in the loudest passages – right from the first variation there seemed to be a certain amount of maxing-out at peaks. Becoming more used to the sound of the instrument after some further listening I went back to variations I, VII and XVII listened more closely, with the volume well up. Even with the volume low it still seems LOUD, as if the needle is being pushed just that much too close to the red for comfort, but I’ll concede that some of this effect may be due to the nature of the piano and/or Willem’s playing. Gerard Willems has stated that the Stuart & Sons piano is not for everyone, and that ‘less is more’ when obtaining the best from it. The massive dynamic range of this piano certainly sounds like a potentially lethal weapon in the wrong hands, but at the same time its mid-upper range colour has something of a fortepiano about it in the softer passages. If only the engineers had approached the recording with the same ‘less is more’ attitude. The effect in this recording is something short of actual compression at high sound-pressure levels, but the only real comparison I can make does bear comparison with a recording made at too high a level. I have returned to this disc more than once and on different systems to convince myself that these comments are fair and objective, and reach the same rather uncomfortable conclusions every time.
Enough about the piano and level peaks. As mentioned, Gerard Willems has a strong reputation with Beethoven, and this is a grand performance of the Diabelli Variations. He admits to the gargantuan task of performing the work effectively, but certainly has technique to spare. My personal minus points are in variations where the tempo dips, rendering the music somewhat heavier than with Ashkenazy. It’s swings and roundabouts with something like Variation VIII, where you may admire the way Willems seeks to find poetry where Ashkenazy is more breezy and light, seeing all those repetitions as a bridge towards a goal, rather than as notes with innate qualities to be explored more deeply. Ashkenazy undercuts Willems’ timing by a good eight minutes overall, and his more horizontal transition of the piece explains much of this difference. Willems has lovely moments, and the Variation XXIV Fughetta is delicious. He does bring out a more melodramatic Beethoven when compared to the sunnier Ashkenazy, who expresses the quirky character of the music with less of that stereotypical Beethoven frown and glower.
Ultimately, if you are fan of Willems and the Stuart & Sons’ sound, then you will want this to stand alongside the sonatas and concertos. I doubt anyone will be disappointed by the fine playing, though putting up with such an in-your-face recording for long periods is a big ask, especially in such a demandingly extended and often stormily intense work as the Diabelli Variations.
The additional pieces are lighter fare. The Andante favori was originally intended to be the second of the three movements of Beethoven's “Waldstein” piano sonata, Opus 53, but was removed after criticism than the sonata was too long. The title is said to have been given by Beethoven’s pupil Czerny due to the piece’s popularity and its regular performance in society by Beethoven himself. Gerard Willems gives elegant performances of this and the familiar ‘Für Elise’, and as a former music teacher it’s always nice to hear the oft-neglected ‘non-theme’ sections.
This is an intriguing release, but ultimately one which is tough to recommend for normal listening. I’m the first up for a full-on challenge, and can relish a good deal of Gerard Willems’ spectacular playing in the Diabelli Variations. The cumulative effect of that huge piano sound – too often overblown by the recording – is however far more like being shouted at by the deaf composer than being energised through his stunning originality. Beethoven always has interesting things to say, but even if one were to be granted an hour’s audience with him at a party I think this kind of bellowing would have one edging away a well before the end of the allotted time, and I’m afraid this is the effect this ABC disc had on me.