I have several recordings of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.
It is a work that I have long appreciated but this latest disc
from Andreas Staier stands out. First, it's the most infectiously
joyous recording I have of the Diabellis. At times, Staier's
performance makes me almost want to get up and dance. Don't
forget, these are variations on a waltz, though after the first,
opening theme, the waltz rhythm itself is pretty much absent.
They are full of musical humor. As Alfred Brendel said in an
essay Must Classical Music Be Entirely Serious? "…Beethoven
here shines as the 'most thoroughly initiated high priest of
humour'; he calls the variations 'a satire on their theme'."
Staier, in the liner notes, calls this music "ironic" and "sarcastic".
Second, this recording is made on a fortepiano, with delicious,
rich sound, which brings back the music as Beethoven heard it
- or would have, if his hearing were better. Finally, this disc
includes not only Beethoven's variations, but also a selection
of variations from other composers. When Diabelli wished to
publish a set of variations on his theme, he sent the theme
to a number of composers, and while many were published, it
was Beethoven who went to the extreme, creating 33 variations.
This recording includes variations by Mozart, Schubert, Czerny,
Hummel and others, along with Staier's own "Introduction", an
improvisation on the theme. All of these "remixes" are at the
beginning of the disc, so if you only want to hear Beethoven,
you can start listening at track 13.
As I said above, Staier's performance is lively, aggressive
and full of joy. It is a delight to hear him play this work,
and especially on this attractive copy of a Graf fortepiano.
The recording is excellent; the fortepiano is very prominent
and full-bodied, and there is no excess of reverb to drown its
Staier recorded this work from the autograph manuscript (which
you can see here). According
to the liner-notes, this manuscript had been "inaccessible"
It seems that there is only one other fortepiano recording of
this work by Jörg Demus (reissued by DG in August, 2012).
It is odd that there are not more recordings of it, even on
modern piano. I assume that Ronald Brautigam will be releasing
a recording of this as part of his complete Beethoven survey
on fortepiano. While most of the major pianists have recorded
it - I especially like Alfred Brendel's recordings - it doesn't
have the popularity of, say, Bach's Goldberg Variations.
Yet it remains one of the greatest sets of variations for piano,
and Staier's recording should help it gain more exposure.
If you're not familiar with this work, Staier's fortepiano recording
is a great way to discover the Diabelli. If you do know
the work, but on modern piano, it's wonderful to hear it on
an original instrument. Either way, this is a great recording
of a great work, and one that any lover of Beethoven's piano
works should get.
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog
Complete track list
From 50 Veränderungen über einen Walzer von
Anton Diabelli - Thema [0:54]
Carl Czerny - Var. IV [1:06]
Johann Nepomuk Hummel - Var. XVI [1:11]
Friedrich Kalkbrenner - Var. XVIII [1:05]
Joseph Kerzkowsky - Var. XX [1:07]
Conradin Kreutzer - Var. XXI [1:03]
Franz Liszt - Var. XXIV [0:59]
Ignaz Moscheles - Var. XXVI [0:59]
Johann Peter Pixis - Var. XXXI [1:30]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Var. XXVIII [1:17]
Franz Schubert - Var. XXXVIII [1:36]
Andreas Staier "Introduction" [3:20]
Diabelli Variations op.120
Thema. Vivace [0:50]
Var. I. Alla Marcia maestoso [1:49]
Var. II. Poco allegro [0:49]
Var. III. L'istesso tempo [1:14]
Var. IV. Un poco più vivace [1:03]
Var. V. Allegro vivace [0:58]
Var. VI. Allegro ma non troppo e serioso [1:35]
Var. VII. Un poco più allegro [1:10]
Var. VIII. Poco vivace [1:38]
Var. IX. Allegro pesante e risoluto [1:46]
Var. X. Presto [0:36]
Var. XI. Allegretto [0:58]
Var. XII. Un poco più moto [0:44]
Var. XIII. Vivace [1:07]
Var. XIV. Grave e maestoso [3:31]
Var. XV. Presto scherzando [0:33]
Var. XVI. Allegro [0:57]
Var. XVII. [0:59]
Var. XVIII. Poco moderato [1:07]
Var. XIX. Presto [0:56]
Var. XX. Andante [2:33]
Var. XXI. Allegro con brio - Meno allegro [1:06]
Var. XXII. Allegro molto [0:48]
Var. XXIII. Allegro assai [0:56]
Var. XXIV - Fughetta. Andante [2:50]
Var. XXV. Allegro [0:53]
Var. XXVI. [1:03]
Var. XXVII. Vivace [0:56]
Var. XXVIII. Allegro [1:04]
Var. XXIX. Adagio ma non troppo [1:14]
Var. XXX. Andante, sempre cantabile [2:14]
Var. XXXI. Largo molto, espressivo [3:56]
Var. XXXII - Fuga. Allegro - Poco adagio [3:06]
Var. XXXIII. Tempo di Menuetto moderato [4:03]