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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op.120 (1819-1822) [72:31]
Christina Bjørkoe (piano)
rec. Syddansk Musikkonservatorium, Odense, Denmark, 9-11 September 2013

Beethoven is not my speciality. Even if he were, I doubt that I would have been able or have wished to evaluate many of the 95 recordings of the Diabelli Variations currently listed on the Arkiv website. Over and above these will be many more versions that have disappeared into history, possibly waiting to be re-mastered. I was ‘brought up’ on Alfred Brendel’s 1988 interpretation on Philips (426 232-2). As it is not a work that I choose to listen to very often, that performance has sufficed over the years.
The Danish concert pianist Christina Bjørkoe is a new name to me. She was born in Copenhagen. At 19 she attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York where she studied with Seymour Lipkin. Returning to Denmark she completed her studies with Ann Øland. Much of her concert activity has included orchestral and chamber music as well as regular appearances in the recital room. Bjørkoe has toured in Europe, the USA, Asia and Latin America. She is an associate professor of music at the Southern Denmark Academy of Music and Theatre School.
Her discography is extensive with CDs dedicated to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Clara and Robert Schumann’s piano music, and Chopin’s 24 Preludes. One of her outstanding achievements has been her attention to Danish composers. She has recorded piano music by Niels W. Gade, Carl Nielsen’s complete piano music, Bentzon’s Sonatas and a variety of chamber music by Børresen, Louis Glass and Vagn Holmboe.
James Friskin wrote that one method of understanding the ‘Diabelli’ Variations is to draw a parallel with Bach’s ‘Goldberg ‘Variations. He insists that Beethoven calls for even more variety and emotional range and demands huge interpretive skills. On the other hand Marion Scott has suggested that this work takes its place alongside Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’, in that ‘Beethoven put forth his full power and learning to demonstrate a form and his mastership [of it]’.
It is useful to recall that the work’s genesis was a request from the publisher Diabelli for a variation each from some thirty-three composers, based on a waltz composed by himself. Legend suggests that Beethoven declined the offer to contribute referring to Diabelli’s tune as a ‘cobbler’s patch’. So, instead of participating in a combined work, Beethoven wrote these 33 variations himself. They were composed in 1819 and were revised in 1822-23.
The theme by Diabelli has rich possibilities for variation and Beethoven was able to produce a set of variations that never really lost sight of the original. The key to listening to this work is that one has to accept that these variations are cumulative: it is not possible to extract sections for separate performance - like the ubiquitous 18th variation from Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme of Paganini.
Beethoven has explored fughetta, imitative passages using techniques that Bach would have been proud of, tremolos and octaves, dissonance and naïve triadic harmonies. There is humour here as well as introspection and an impossibly complex fugue. The overall impression is of a bewildering collection of hugely contrasting, but somehow internally consistent variations. I guess that the interpretive demands mean that only the greatest pianists can tackle it.
My one concern with this CD is the length of the recording. Bjørkoe takes a monumental 72:31 to reach the final bar. Alfred Brendel disposes of this work in 52:36. Under the hour mark seems to be the norm with most recordings. I have not followed the music for this work in both of these versions for the entire work, however Bjørkoe plays many of the repeats that are found in virtually every variation. I am not a Beethoven scholar so I do not know the pros and cons of this approach. Nonetheless, it makes a long set of variations even longer by 20 full minutes. It is up to listeners to decide for themselves if this ‘extra’ music is appropriate.
As always with Danacord, the sound recording is ideal: every nuance of this complex work is clearly audible. The liner-notes by Mogens Christensen are a model of their kind, giving a history of the work and a readable, non-technical analysis of each movement. This bears study even if the reader feels it is a little quixotic.
The playing of this set of variations by Bjørkoe caught my imagination and held my attention in spite of the extended length. The variety within these variations is essential: I guess that it is the contrast between them that is most important. The most impressive moment for me is the longest variation (14th) with its ‘sustained quietness’. In all this Christina Bjørkoe succeeds in giving a commanding and memorable recital.
John France