Notes and Editorial Reviews
Here is something quite different and totally fascinating. Edmund Battersby gives us two versions of Beethoven?s
, one played on a 1997 replica of a Conrad Graf piano from 1825 (from the shop of R. J. Regier in Freeport, Maine), the other played on a 1976 Steinway D piano.
For the one or two readers of this journal who may not be in the know, let me very briefly recap the history of what many have come to regard as Beethoven?s greatest solo keyboard work. Circa 1819, music publisher and composer Anton Diabelli hatched the harebrained scheme
of inviting approximately 50 of Vienna?s noted composers to provide a single variation each on a trifling waltz theme he himself provided. The harebrained part wasn?t the
Diabelli proposed to cook up, but imagining that he could enlist Beethoven as just another one of the vegetable peelers. Beethoven, being Beethoven, turned Diabelli down flat. The thought, however, of Frederick II of Prussia and Bach?s
A Musical Offering
could not have escaped Beethoven. And so, determined to leave a similar legacy to posterity, he began work on his own set of variations on Diabelli?s sophomoric little tune, not completing the work until four years later in 1823. This makes the
Beethoven?s final great solo keyboard utterance, post-dating the last piano sonata (op. 111), which was completed in 1822.
The variations range in mood from comic banality and biting parody to otherworldly states of stillness, grace, and benediction. But most of all, as was pointed out by Piotr Anderszewski in his Virgin Classics DVD, Beethoven?s methods of motivic deconstruction throughout the work not only mirror Bach?s techniques in his
, but also point the way to Beethoven?s final string quartets that would follow.
Interpretively, even though the two performances come within a minute of each other, these are radically different approaches to the work, and that?s what makes this release so interesting. Whether Battersby?s fortepiano version sounds as it does because the instrument?s limitations necessitate it, or he plays it as he does because he believes this is how it would have been played and how it would have sounded in Beethoven?s day, I am not in a position to say. This much, however, is certain: in Battersby?s hands and on fortepiano, the
comes across as perfectly balanced, well regulated, and totally integrated, by which I mean it sounds all of a piece. In the modern piano version, the
is suddenly the bold and shocking thing we have long believed it to be. Dynamic and dramatic contrasts are violent, the sheer depth of resonance awesome, the tonal range, not just of the instrument but of Beethoven?s imagination, staggering. This is how most of us grew up hearing Beethoven and believing his music sounded?or ought to. But after hearing Battersby?s fortepiano version, I wonder. Much is gained on the modern piano, but something of the balance and integration is lost. There can be no denying that in the modern piano version the piece sounds somehow more of a ragtag jumble of disconnected episodes, but what a magnificent mélange it remains.
Arguments can be made that the keyboards Beethoven would have known in the late 1790s and early 1800s were not the same ones he would have known 20 years on. Technical and mechanical developments were swift, and clearly, the keyboard for which he imagined the ?Hammerklavier? in his mind?s inner ear was a different animal from that for which he conceived his earliest sonatas. It is, of course, fascinating to speculate on what Beethoven would have thought if confronted by a modern Steinway D. Yet, much as we might like to project our own verdict that he would have embraced it with an enthusiastic, ?yes, finally, this is just what I always wanted,? we cannot know that for sure. The fun, and the real value of this release, is that Battersby has once again caused us to question and to wonder. Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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