Beethoven: Diabelli-Variationen – Schiff (ECM New Series 2294/95)



András Schiff Bechstein piano, Franz Brodmann fortepiano
Recorded July and December 2012 at Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn (Brodmann fortepiano) and Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano (Bechstein)
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn (Brodmann) and Urs Bachmann (Bechstein)
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As a performer, pianist András Schiff gifted his own magnum opus when he traversed Ludwig van Beethoven’s entire cycle of 32 piano sonatas for ECM’s New Series. Now he turns to the same composer’s own magnum opus (120, to be exact): the formidable Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli. The Diabelli Variations, as they are more popularly known, have since taken on a status unsurpassed in post-Bach keyboard literature. At the time (1819) he was working on the variations, his Missa solemnis was also taking shape, though the Diabelli project would prove to be no less large in scope. Beethoven was one of 50 composers to be commissioned for a variation on Diabelli’s apparently paltry waltz (the legendary assertion of Beethoven’s dislike of it is questionable and, at any rate, irrelevant), and the only among them to expand the task to such fruitful proportions. His fearless imagination works wonders with the bait dangled before him, to the extent where he not only steals it unscathed but also hooks the dangler in the process.


Humor, invention, and fragmentation: these are the hallmarks of Schiff’s Diabelli. Or should one say, Diabellis, for indeed the pianist offers two readings of the work on polar instruments. The first flows from a 1921 Bechstein grand, by which the music’s kaleidoscopic qualities come into sharp focus. Under Schiff’s control, it’s obvious that each variation carries something of the last one forward—from revelry to stubbornness to whimsy. Schiff handles these changes with consummate fluency, and with a spirit of continuity that massages every kink out of the material at hand(s). The occasional caduceus of trills is enlivening and along with the collection’s most brilliant moments reveals new details. Some are smoother, more legato, others more oriented toward punctuation, but the range of invention makes of the Diabelli a Beethoven primer and shows a craftsman enjoying himself so much that he must share it with the world.

Hearing these same vignettes on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano from Beethoven’s time is akin to witnessing history come to life. Like an old film reel, it has the quality of an era into which we have never stepped but from which we have proceeded to unravel, making of its relics whatever we can along the way. There is a more immediate charge to them, something urgent and vibrant, if not also vital.

There’s no dearth of fine Diabellis to satisfy the appetites of the curious. For total command, one will want to compare Alfred Brendel or Sviatoslav Richter; for something fresher, Paul Lewis or Rudolf Serkin; and for both, Artur Schnabel (who also plays on a Bechstein) or Stephen Kovacevich. Fewer versions exist on fortepiano, most notably by Andreas Staier. But the chance to hear one of each from the same artist on the same record is unprecedented. In addition to Schiff’s enthralling performances, his interpretation has the benefit of the composer’s previously unknown original scores at hand. These provide valuable cues absent from previous interpretations and set a new benchmark for future ones. “Schiff does not just perform the music,” observes Paul Griffiths in the album’s booklet, “he performs the music performing itself,” and in the listening we add another layer of performance that rewards us with gold.

And on the topic of rewards, this album has more in store. By way of the Bechstein we have Beethoven’s final sonata, the Opus 111, which Schiff revisits with remarkable elasticity. Even more so than his last account for ECM, it combines fluidity and rigidity as if they were one and the same—at once a reflection of Beethoven’s writing and of Schiff’s ability to evoke (invoke?) it. The piano is crisp under his fingertips in the first movement, pliant in the massive second (a statement for all time if there ever was one), and bends under a deluge of melodic tensions toward a sweeping finale, throwing parting handfuls of ash and fairy dust.

Not to be left out, the fortepiano yields a majestic Six Bagatelles. The storyboarding of Beethoven’s Opus 126 has rarely been so lucid. It is as if the music were bound into a book, its materiality as undeniable as its sonority. From rolling syncopations to quiet expanse, these pieces sit at an intersection of vertical architecture and horizontal travel. In them beats the heart of a musician who lives to paint, applying colors over and over until they become three-dimensional.

(To hear samples of Diabelli Variationen, click here.)

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