Notes and Editorial Reviews
The cover presents a striking image: the conquering hero, immortalized
in stone, looks out over a sea of fire. He stands alone against
the flames, boldly unconcerned. It is a wonderful image of Beethoven
the warrior, the master of musical struggles.
The contents of this CD come from a very different side of Beethoven.
This recital showcases Beethoven’s witty side, his penchant
for virtuosic invention, and his growth as a creative mind.
These are six sets of themes and variations, only two of them
published. The other four are early works which
reveal the genesis
of ideas and techniques which would later become the composer’s
mainstays. Any lover of Beethoven ought to hear this.
Pianist Ian Yungwook Yoo, who is qualified for the job by his
first-prize triumph at the 2007 Beethoven Competition in Bonn,
tackles the legendary ‘Eroica’ variations first.
He is clearly an advocate of ‘big,’ old-fashioned
pianism, and the powerfully sustained opening chord establishes
this immediately. But he also sets free his inhibitions, indulges
Beethoven’s violent dynamic changes (3:27-3:43), lets
the left hand interrupt lyrical moments such as that at 7:00,
and matches Beethoven’s playfulness smile-for-smile in
variations like the one beginning at 5:21. This is supreme musical
The bulk of the CD is concerned with unpublished variations
on themes by other composers. None of these writers are remembered
with anything like the fondness we have for Beethoven, and (as
with the Diabelli Variations) we can safely say that Beethoven’s
achievements with these variations exceed the originals in every
case. Salieri’s opera Falstaff has been recorded
several times, including performances on Chandos and Hungaroton
and even a DVD, but none of the “originals” to the
other works here have been recorded. Indeed the catalogues at
Arkivmusic and MDT have no listings at all for CDs of music
by Jakob Haibel.
The primary interest of these works is as a fascinating catalog
of Beethoven’s early treatment of the variation format.
Theme-and-variations was arguably the central form of the composer’s
career: consider the mighty variation movements in the Third,
Fifth, and Ninth symphonies, the piano sonatas opp. 109 and
111, and the monumental Diabelli set. If you are at all fond
of those works, you should listen to the early Beethoven variations,
for they really do provide great insights into his evolving
language and his way of creating something stupendous out of
I say “nothing” because one of the insights on offer
here is that Beethoven consciously chose bare, bland, maybe
even poor themes for his variations. The Diabelli waltz theme
is, in that sense, perfect for Beethoven’s purpose: if
you set it alongside Wranitzky’s dull Russian Dance, or
Haibel’s genial but forgettable minuet, or (dare I say
it) the Eroica tune, you see that they really are all cut from
the same cloth; the rhythmic similarity between Diabelli’s
theme and Salieri’s is truly striking. The themes are
canvases on which Beethoven paints; in fact they are rather
cheap canvases from the supermarket chosen in order to demonstrate
all the more clearly that the credit belongs solely to the painter.
Typical of this style is the Haibel set: immediately, with the
first variation, Beethoven leaps into a wholly different mood
and style. Not for him the classical-era plan of simply ornamenting
the tune with little decorations, then having the left and right
hands switch, then altering the melody by one or two notes.
Beethoven leaps in at the deep end. Already we can hear his
adventurousness and his conception of variations as transformative.
This structure will be taken to more profound heights in works
like the last piano sonata but even in the 1790s Beethoven was
writing “theme and transformations”.
The first variation of the Wranitzky set is more conventional,
but in exactly five minutes the theme is rendered completely
unrecognizable and the work becomes wholly Beethoven’s.
And there are vintage Beethoven moments all through these early
works, like his habit - to be highlighted in the piano and orchestral
Eroica variations - of leaving melodies hanging confidently
in midair halfway through, pausing, and then rolling in with
the resolutions. The luminous Wranitzky variation at about 3:35
presages some of Beethoven’s transcendent writing in the
last sonatas; the fact that Beethoven cannot even wait until
Salieri’s theme is over before beginning to toy with it
brought a smile to my face. The Salieri set, although a bit
monotonous, does introduce the classically Beethovenian idea
of bringing back the original theme at the end, subtly transformed.
The ‘Turkish march’ variations Op 76 make a delightful
The only real competitors in this quiet corner of the Beethoven
repertoire are Alfred Brendel on Brilliant Classics, John Ogdon
on EMI, Ronald Brautigam on Globe, and Gianluca Cascioli on
DG, though the last two are quite hard to find and indeed the
latter is out of print. Florian Uhlig on Hänssler has recently
recorded the Wranitzky set. The unpublished variations are probably
not interesting enough to merit duplicating if you already have
one of those recordings, although I should point out that Brendel
omits the Haibel and none of them can match the Naxos sound
There are many Eroica variations out there, and everyone will
have a favorite (Gilels looms large), but Ian Yungwook Yoo really
does bring everything to this performance: showmanship, drama,
great wit, playfulness, sensitivity (8:59-10:02, 15:11-17:20),
and superb technique. He is recorded in finer sound than any
competitor, although you will want to turn the volume up. He
is less sober than Bernard Roberts on Nimbus, more ‘grand’
and romantic than Jenö Jandó, and a full three minutes
slower than Brendel, to Yoo’s advantage; Brendel treats
the humorous and merely virtuosic variations with one fleet-fingered,
For Beethoven lovers and aficionados his early variations are
essential listening and have greatly aided me in my listening
to his late masterworks in the genre. If you are a casual fan,
you may find this music to be of less obvious interest, since
so much of it is light, witty, and clever, rather than fiery
as the cover might imply. It is not ‘vintage Beethoven’
by any means. But hints of ‘vintage Beethoven’ are
to be heard in every work, and that is why real devotees of
the composer will find this volume fascinating.
-- Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International Read less
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