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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations on an original theme in C minor WoO80 (1806) [13:00]
6 Variations on an original theme in F major Op 34 (1802) [14:27]
15 Variations and a fugue on an original theme 'Eroica' Op 35 (1802) [24:54]
9 Variations on the aria 'Quant'č pių bello' from Paisiello's La molinara WoO69 (1795) [6:30]
6 Variations on the duet 'Nel cor pių non mi sento' from La molinara WoO70 (1795) [5:51]
7 Variations on 'God save the King' WoO78 (1803) [9:27]
5 Variations on 'Rule, Britannia' WoO79 (1803) [5:31]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
rec. 27-30 January 2020, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin.
HYPERION CDA68346 [79:43]

Angela Hewitt on this CD presents seven sets of variations by Beethoven. I shall focus on one innovative set (Op 34), one undoubted masterpiece (Op 35) and two, more traditional sets on popular tunes (WoO78 and WoO79), though even here Beethoven provides surprises. The 6 Variations on an original theme in F major (tr. 2) were ground-breaking in presenting every variation in a new key, the piece forming a chain of descending thirds from F major. Hewitt at once catches the homeliness of the F major theme, then immediately shocks us with the showman’s rhetoric of the sforzando arpeggios of its first and third cadences, while affectionate lingering is a growing feature of the phrase which quells the fireworks. Poise is everything in this piece and everywhere found in Hewitt’s account.

In Variation 1 (1:17) you feel acrobatic freedom in her open-eyed exploration in D major with a basic flow of demisemiquavers and generous supply of hemidemisemiquavers. The theme already seems to have reached the zenith of ornate fancy, but the cadences have a light touch while centrally sforzandos mock gauchely. In Variation 2 in B flat major (2:56), a rather bumptious staccato march, Allegro ma non troppo, is countered by jubilantly free-flowing semiquaver clusters, the whole made more vivid by striking dynamic contrasts, occasional dissonance and, in the midst of the second strain, cross rhythms between the hands. Variation 3 in G major (4:05) is an Allegretto marked dolce of legato quavers which are broken up more in its second strain, because its outward calm only partially cloaks an inward restlessness. Variation 4, Tempo di Menuetto in E flat major (5:23), at first sports affectionate treatment of the theme, yet the mood of benign reflection is shot through with demands for more present activity and Hewitt enjoys a rustic, clodhopping quality in the left hand in the second section. In Variation 5, an Allegretto in C minor, labelled as a march (7:04), the rhythm is more mocking than in Variation 2, the responses to the theme starker. A transitional passage works itself into a fanfare to emphasise the arrival of Variation 6, an Allegretto in F major (9:40), quite a fast Allegretto from Hewitt, but eager and tripping, bright, assured and definitely with a sense of welcome home. A coda (10:46) adds reflection, mixing mirth and sadness, leading to an Adagio molto closing statement of the original theme now egregiously ornamented as hemidemisemiquavers and an abundance of trills rule. But Hewitt shows these can be applied lightly, lovingly and serenely.

These variations are a particularly striking example of early Beethoven offering a melting pot of 18th and 19th century styles, in the vanguard of the latter while also refusing to abandon the former. This creates a difficulty for the interpreter: too much emphasis on the 18th century and the piece can sound antiquated, too much on the 19th it can sound a mix of the truculent and the rampant. Hewitt steers a judicious course between the two and, above all, lets the work remain fun. I compare Mikhail Pletnev, recorded in 1997 (Deutsche Grammophon 4574932, now licensed to Presto). In the presentation of the theme Pletnev inclines more to the 18th century with arguably a truer Adagio, timing at 1:36 to Hewitt’s 1:16 and a very beautiful, legato sound, with no intention to shock with the arpeggios, which he achieves by ignoring the sforzando markings. He presents the theme in concentrated detail within which the ornamentation is inherent. I don’t feel Hewitt gives the ornamentation quite that importance, yet I appreciate the care she takes to reveal the progress and climax of the theme.

Variation 1 Pletnev presents as the volatile spinning of a magic top. I like its alertness, resilience and the quixotic, scherzo like quality, the flickering sensations he brings, to many of the ‘fast notes’. The comparative timings are the opposite of those of the theme, with Pletnev’s 1:24 a faster Allegro ma non troppo than Hewitt’s 1:37. But she justifies, apart from the marking itself, being more laid back, through contrasting clearly a purposive theme and fanciful ornamentation and being very pointed dramatically, such as with the sforzandos (from 1:56) which herald the climax, at which point of achievement she then eases off slightly. In Variation 2 Pletnev makes the opening march rhythm light as well as crisp, though the sforzandos add weight to it, while the responding phrase seems part of the same grandeur rather than Hewitt’s contrast. In comparison I feel Hewitt’s sforzandos too heavy, but her second section opening dazzles more than Pletnev’s, with the cross rhythms between the hands more vividly, enjoyably revealed.

In Variation 3 Pletnev’s legato is creamier but for me his Allegretto, timing at 1:00 to Hewitt’s 1:19, is too fast to savour the dynamic contrasts, so I prefer Hewitt’s better and more dolce shape and caressing of line. In Variation 4 Pletnev, timing at 1:05, and Hewitt at 1:42, have different ideas as to what is a Tempo di Menuetto. I prefer the more sedate Minuet of Hewitt, who can still provide weight in the left hand in the second section, yet has more glow in the right hand. Pletnev’s is a jolly, bouncing, robust Minuet which still accommodates contrast in the second section until the left-hand kicks in. In the Variation 5 Marcia Pletnev’s Allegretto this time, at 2:47, is slower than Hewitt’s 2:15, even after allowing for Pletnev not repeating the opening section. He begins stealthily, a bit more morose than Hewitt, but his second section progresses powerfully. Hewitt’s greater pace, however, creates more vivid dynamic contrasts, splashes of sound and emphatic cadences. Nevertheless, I prefer the way Pletnev handles the transition to Variation 6, moving from a recollection of the march to a forward-looking fanfare for the finale. Hewitt presents the transition as a new mood from the outset.

Variation 6 is Allegretto, but its closing return of the theme Adagio molto. Timing the whole at 3:49, for me Pletnev’s opening is too animated to be dolce, though this approach does suit the playfulness of his second section which he makes delicious without being skittish. Hewitt, timing the whole at 4:35, still has fair pace but also radiance from the outset with attractively playful appoggiaturas, yet also sufficient body. Pletnev’s coda glides, less serenely than Hewitt’s, but with an agreeable sense of happy retrospection without nostalgia. Hewitt’s coda seems more serious in its retrospection. In the Adagio molto Pletnev treats the ornamentation as delicate filigree work to be cherished and well balanced with the progression of the theme, while he plays the closing soft bars as if an adieu with a pointed wink. Hewitt also balances well the theme and its ornamentation, though the latter isn’t as light as Pletnev’s. But her right hand is more radiant.

What are called the Eroica Variations (tr. 3) Beethoven preferred titled with reference to its origin, Variations on a theme from Prometheus, his ballet of 1800-01, the theme of which he then used as Contredanse No. 7 of twelve (1801) and then again as the basis of the finale of his Eroica Symphony. On piano alone you lose out in terms of instrumental variety but gain in clarity of the abundance of melodic strands. A thunderous ff opening chord gives way to pp calm and, as Hewitt reveals, also mystery in the four-minim core before the freer, from Hewitt jocular, staccato of the first part of the first statement. This isn’t the theme but the skeleton of its bass and, to fox you still more, comes a right-hand counter melody (tr. 3, 0:46) over a legato version of the bass skeleton. It’s good everything is so clear with Hewitt as Beethoven presents his material in turn in 3 parts (1:29), then 4 parts (2:12), before at last revealing the theme (2:48), but marked dolce, so this is a gently beaming revelation from Hewitt.

What’s marked Variation 1 (3:27) is a tripping, right-hand version of the theme against a smoother left-hand version of the three quaver staccato stomps that first came in the second part of the first statement. Variation 2 (4:05) is triumphantly bubbling semiquaver triplets in the right hand over steadily flowing quavers in the left, with a cadenza style explosion of falling then rising semiquavers in its second part. In Variation 3 (5:02) semiquavers in units now of just two gauchely thrust the theme forward. In Variation 4 (5:46) light right-hand quavers make a delectable topping over left-hand flowing semiquavers. Variation 5 (6:29), by contrast, is one of tender musing, with the interest in the poised delicacy, nothwithstanding sforzandos, of the interrelationship of both hands. Variation 6 (7:20) is urgent, despite the apparent modesty of the theme’s early presentation. The climax in the first part is sudden and crunching. The second part begins threateningly but dissolves harmlessly. More drama still in Variation 7 (7:59), a Canone all’ottava, both very dapper and emphatic from Hewitt: the right-hand first in coloratura soprano range, the left an octave lower and delivered following one crotchet beat delay. In the second part the left-hand starts with a 5-quaver enhanced recall of those original 3-quaver stomps.

Fun and wit are the key ingredients of Hewitt’s performance, characteristics she supplies in tandem with an agreeable degree of classical detachment. But time for a comparison, Emil Gilels recorded in 1980 (Deutsche Grammophon 4231362, now licensed to Presto). In the introduction Gilels is steelier in the drama and contrast of dynamics, with weightier loud passages and investing more contemplative glow and rapt silence in the soft ones. His staccato has a quieter humour than Hewitt’s, yet a clearly present one. The elements of the gradation of presentation from two to four voices are more sharply delineated, the four voice one really triumphing. The first full presentation of the theme really skips, with Gilels not modest about showmanship. Gilels’ Variation 1 is more joyous; his Variation 2 ripples with more ecstasy; his Variation 3 is boisterously uninhibited: he seems more comfortable with this rougher manner of Beethoven than Hewitt. In Variation 4, however, I missed Hewitt’s light right-hand, though Gilels’ semiquavers in the left streak along. In Variation 5 Gilels doesn’t match Hewitt’s delicacy while in Variation 6 he shows less contrast and variety of mood, his main emphasis being one of purposeful busy-ness. Gilels’ Variation 7 is trimly staccato, but his second part ff stomps are more of a shock than Hewitt’s. Hewitt conveys the variations as a series of studies, rather like visiting an exhibition. With Gilels you’re swept along in a continuous narrative which makes you eager and alert to keep listening.

Returning to Hewitt, Variation 8 (8:40) is a delicious surprise: a gentle pp meditation in left-hand crotchets to a low-lying right-hand accompaniment of rippling semiquavers. From Hewitt wistfully rhapsodic, it seems to anticipate Brahms in manner but is lighter in tone, the second part in the right hand exquisite, despite the recurring boom of the ff B flat in the bass. Variation 9 (9:38) has a sforzando octave higher B flat recurring in the bass, preceded by grace notes. The convivial bounce of Hewitt’s right hand has to carry this rather irritating clamour. Variation 10 (10:18) is right-hand scurrying semiquavers over pointed left-hand quavers. Its second part returns to those early three stomps now seeming far from home, yet delivered with great conviction by Hewitt.

Gilels’ Variation 8 lacks the wistfulness of Hewitt’s because his accompaniment is more marked, yet the resultant greater clarity overall makes the thematic progression clearer. Similarly, in Variation 9 Gilels takes pains to make the overall line clear and then he can make the articulation very heavy without appearing gauche, like Hewitt’s. In Variation 10 Gilels surprises with a more delicate right hand than Hewitt and a more appreciable equipoise with the left hand. The firm climax of the second part is then urbanely dismissed.

Back to Hewitt for Variation 11 (11:01), all charm and cheekiness, with a tinselly upper register right-hand determined to garnish everything, like a piccolo upstaging a violin. Hewitt enjoys this, particularly the coyness early in the second section. Variation 12 (11:47) steels in with alternating soft, rising phrases in semiquavers from the right hand and loud, falling ones from the left. Again, an early climax in the second part evaporates into soft exchanges between the hands before this time closing with ff repartee. Variation 13 (12:30) sounds from Hewitt the high point of comedy and skittish abandon. A skeleton of the theme appears in crunching appoggiaturas in the right hand. Hewitt fully embraces this rawness.

Gilels’ Variation 11 is characterized by very clean contrast and balance of upper and lower register flaunting, the lower having fewer notes but more potency. Hewitt, however, gets more humour and character from the exchanges. Gilels treats the second section coyness more broadly, but for me this is overdoing it: I prefer Hewitt’s suaveness. Gilels’ Variation 12 is a fine example of his virtuoso sweep, but I prefer Hewitt’s stronger ff climaxes in the second section. Gilels powerhouses his way through Variation 13, but this takes a little off the pungency of the appoggiaturas and, without this, the whole appears too zany.

Variation 14, in E flat minor (13:15), is the first in a minor key and the first double variation. Hewitt presents it as a shock of solemnity, first with a counter melody flowing in the left hand alongside the theme in the right. Left and right hand then exchange roles before a true double variation (13:49) when the musing quavers emanate from the left hand, punctuated by a variety of sighs in the right. Hewitt reveals the two can coexist with sensitivity, intimacy and poignancy. This is mournfulness of poetic eloquence, with wonderful placing of every phrase, sometimes every note and contrast of legato and staccato touches by Hewitt. For Variation 15 (14:45), a second double variation, we’re back to the home key of E flat major, now from Hewitt with a sense of beatific calm with the slowing of tempo to Largo. Looking at the score you’ll immediately be struck by the wealth of hemidemisemiquavers in both hands but, as Hewitt shows, these fast notes at this tempo bring a hallowed quality to their filigree ornamentation, a work suddenly on a different plane from the japes earlier. The double variation arrives with an fp (16:39) of more purposive rising and falling scales up to ff, as if a military presence has suddenly invaded this haven. But the earlier mood isn’t to be dispelled easily and tries to accommodate the ‘military’ one. This final variation has a Coda (18:32) marked espressivo which far from being a resolution ushers in a new phase of further probing, from Hewitt I sense uneasy about a further direction, then left-hand hemidemisemiquavers which act as a drumroll to the piece’s finale.

Gilels’ Variation 14 seems more formal than Hewitt’s: thoughtful and stony, marmoreal, it has a stoic intensity but neither the colour nor the emotional impact of Hewitt. It looks at grief rather than experiences it. Hewitt’s right-hand sighs seem more like rebukes from Gilels, exhortations to pull yourself together. In Variation 15 Gilels presents a heroic, upstanding clarity in place of Hewitt’s serenity, then a release of virtuoso display. The fp beginning to the double variation is then a clarification of the heroism. So, you have a choice: Hewitt’s contrast of mood or Gilels’ continuity. In favour of the latter, Gilels’ coda is for me more expressive, focussed and solemn than Hewitt’s, its ‘drumroll’ more dramatic, charting an anxiety that can only be assuaged by the finale.

That finale starts as a fugue (19:52), Allegro con brio, whose subject is the first four notes of the ‘Eroica’ theme, accompanied by cascades of semiquavers, its manner forthright, exploratory, confident, sometimes humorous too and with occasionally unexpectedly pungent chords and harmonies. But Beethoven wanted to end with a cheery certainty more than such technical accomplishment. Now comes an Andante con moto (22:17) and two more double variations, the Eroica theme from Hewitt a beaming, innocent song with the tackiest yet also heartiest of accompaniments. In its further variation (22:31) it’s accompanied by running trills and semiquaver roulades. The second set of double variations offers more density with the theme in left-hand chords against florid right-hand decoration in semiquavers (23:20). Its further variation (23:50) ditches the left-hand chords for the greater momentum of semiquavers or demisemiquavers in at least one hand. Now only a brief coda (24:19) satisfyingly rounds everything off. Is Gilels’ finale a different experience? Timing it at 4:38 to Hewitt’s 4:46, he’s a touch faster and I’m very much aware of his proficient ease of pace in the fugue as well as its clarity. But I prefer Hewitt’s greater homeliness, common touch if you like, in the later, simpler presentation of the Eroica theme. Gilels’ sudden ff punctuation in the second part of the theme is more formal than Hewitt’s gleeful splash and his left-hand chords in the further variation are similarly a mite more rigid.

Now for party time, the fun Beethoven has with his 7 Variations on God save the King (tr. 6) as he commented “to show the English what a blessing they have” in that tune. You can hear he feels and shows it has an inherent nobility with the simplicity with which he presents the tune and yet strangely unpretentious noblesse oblige and wonderful calm with which Hewitt is able to play it. I’m glad also to be able to point out the theme we know today is an inferior, squarer, plodding version of what originally was more flowing. You have to wait until 8:13 to learn this, where there’s an appoggiatura at what in the sung version would be the second line, making two quavers rather than one crotchet at “God save our noble King”, which improves the piece one hundred percent.

Variation 1 (tr. 6, 1:13) sports gracious, flowing counterpoint from Hewitt in running quavers rippling around the theme, the appoggiatura I praised earlier given full bloom at 1:19. In Variation 2 (2:12) the quavers change to a semiquavers’ workout, but the second section finds Hewitt gleeful with a triumphant sprint to the finishing line. Variation 3 (3:00) you could believe is Hewitt relishing Beethoven cocking a snook at the theme, owing to its spiky cross rhythms between the hands and emphatic, sforzando led cadences. Variation 4 (3:47) breaks up the rhythm into two semiquavers, two quavers and one crotchet stomps alternating between the hands and is the first of three variations in which the theme has virtually vanished. Variation 5 (4:42) is a stroke of genius, a still centre in the piece in which C major changes to C minor, mainly soft and Con espressione. Hewitt brings to it a cool, sorrowing, reflective majesty, displaying a sensitive element within the cares of the realm and its ruler. Variation 6 (6:14), and Allegro and Alla Marcia, all dotted rhythms, is like a stream of fanfares, the ecstatic closing bar of the first section of which could be cheers or guffaws. Variation 7 (7:20) you think of as nifty semiquaver runs, though the theme is in clear focus largely in the left hand with some quirky right-hand touches which from Hewitt seem like giggling appreciation, racing into a shimmering coda (7:56), then broadening into a solemn yet brief Adagio (8:04), again taking in the aforementioned magical appoggiatura (8:13). But no, that’s not the end, which is a romping Allegro (8:29), in Hewitt’s playing of which I fancy Beethoven attains the closest anticipation you’ll hear of Scott Joplin. Listening to Hewitt’s account is to believe Beethoven’s mastery is able both to glorify and send up the theme, and I think she’s right.

So, how about 5 Variations on Rule, Britannia? Subversion is even more rife here. The theme, from the finale of Thomas Arne’s The masque of Alfred, is first presented straight and bright by Hewitt, its chorus a touch more robust. But Variation 1 (0:47) brings the surprise of a rumbling bass over which Hewitt’s right hand nevertheless sails increasingly serenely. In her booklet note she guesses “maybe a nod to the navy - it sort of sounds like being underwater”; but I suggest it’s more straightforward than that: the waves over which Britannia rules. The problem, or rather mischief, on Beethoven’s part being the right-hand allusions to the theme are very veiled. In Variation 2 (1:35) the veil lifts in the chorus while what you have already enjoyed, as Hewitt does, is the soft, smooth yet intricate sempre legato interplay between the hands. Variation 3 (2:23) is a total contrast in its bouncing display of triplets in semiquavers, the vestige of the theme left here its majestic flourishing. Variation 4 (3:08) is the one in this piece where Beethoven goes into the minor, here B minor where all the other variations are in D major. The left-hand waves in running semiquavers are turbulent, against which the right-hand delivers the theme with stern, steely resolve. In Variation 5 (4:03) those gurgling watery semiquavers can be exchanged between the hands as the theme moves from a heavy disguise in the left-hand to a prominent, triumphant right one. Then, in the coda (4:31) Beethoven deconstructs the theme to its opening flourish repeated as if ad lib, punctuated by staccato right-hand raps and left-hand chords. Why? I think he transforms the whole piece into a jeu d’esprit, as if saying “All life’s a game.” So, let’s just enjoy it, and Hewitt certainly does.

Michael Greenhalgh
Previous review: Dominy Clements

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