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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 [55:14]
Andante Favori, WoO 57 [8:46]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
rec. 24-25 September, 2012, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK

Nimbus has issued several recordings by the Russian émigré, Vladimir Feltsman, including some performances of Beethoven. I note that my colleague Jonathan Woolf, in reviewing a coupling of the Op. 101 and Op. 106 sonatas detected ‘something almost half-hearted about some of the playing’ and ‘a curious sense of a lack of engagement.’ This is odd because Feltsman is not at all a cold player’, he added. It may be significant that, as Jonathan pointed out, those recordings, though only issued three or four years ago by Nimbus, I think, were set down back in 1998. I only spotted those comments after I’d finished doing my listening to this much more recent performance of the Diabelli Variations by which time I was pretty clear in my mind what I intended to say about it.
Jonathan’s assertion that Feltsman is not a cold player is borne out by this performance. I found his playing involving and engaged. One aspect of his playing that caught my ear early on was the strength of his left hand. I can imagine that some listeners might even find some of the variations a little too bass-heavy though I liked the firmness and definition that Feltsman brings to the bass line which is, after all, the foundation of the music. I’m assuming, since there’s nothing in the booklet to suggest otherwise, that Feltsman played on the Steinway in the Wyastone concert hall. The instrument, as reproduced on my equipment, has suitable - but not excessive - brightness, especially in the upper reaches and the bass end is well defined. It seems to suit Feltsman’s pianism.
Diabelli’s theme isn’t all that remarkable in itself but, then, so often we find that the best subjects for variations are fairly simple, even basic, tunes. Beethoven uses this modest little waltz as the springboard for a remarkably inventive set of variations. As so often with this composer energy and vitality are the keystones of so much of the music. Indeed, I had rather forgotten until following this performance in the score, how very few of the variations are in a slow tempo: only five of the thirty-three fall into that category and Beethoven keeps us waiting until the fourteenth variation for some slow music. One of several remarkable features of this piece is how in several variations the music doesn’t seem to fit into triple time - it bestrides the bar lines - yet it all works marvellously.
Feltsman does the slower variations well, especially the last three slow ones (Variations 29-31). He gives us some very delicate, calm playing in No. 29 while his account of No. 30 reflects and respects the marking sempre cantabile. I was particularly taken with his expressive, sensitive reading of No. 31. I should also mention the very withdrawn way in which he delivers the few poco adagio bars at the end of No. 32, distilling much atmosphere in a short time span.
Most of the variations are livelier in nature and in these, too, I find Feltsman convincing. His deftness in Variation No. 2 is admirable, for example, and he brings out the bluff humour in No. 9. The Fuga (No. 32) is a success; Feltsman displays firm purpose and achieves excellent clarity in the first part - here, once again, the firmness of his left hand is an asset - while in the Bachian second episode he plays nimbly. Earlier, in the Fughetta (No. 24) he voices the various lines well.
This is a convincing account of the Diabelli Variations and the programme is completed by an elegant account of the Andante Favori.
Feltsman projects the music well into the acoustic of the hall and the engineer, who is not credited, has recorded the performances well. The notes are by Feltsman himself and are interesting.
John Quinn