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Beethoven: Diabelli Variations / Paul Lewis

Release Date: 06/14/2011 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 902071   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Paul Lewis
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations Paul Lewis (pn) HARMONIA MUNDI 902071 (52:46)

Here is Paul Lewis’s logical wrap-up to his critically acclaimed Beethoven concerto and sonata cycles. Colin Clarke covered the sonatas in Fanfare 31:4, and yours truly covered the concertos in 34:3. Of course, there are still the bagatelles that Lewis might decide to favor us with, but for practical purposes he’s likely had his say on Beethoven for now.

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The story behind the Diabelli Variations hardly needs retelling. For an astute, enterprising businessman with his eye fixed on the bottom line, Anton Diabelli’s motives were remarkably altruistic when in 1819 he solicited 50 well-known composers of the realm to contribute a variation on a waltz theme he provided. The sales proceeds were to go to orphans and widows of the Napoleonic Wars. His mistake—but our good fortune—was to knock on Beethoven’s door to enlist him as a donor.

One can only imagine Beethoven’s chagrin at being lumped together with the likes of Czerny, Hummel, Moscheles, and Archduke Rudolph, but he shouldn’t have been so quick to sneer. If you enter filesmap.com/mp3/32S/archduke-rudolph-diabelli-variation-xl in your Internet browser, you can listen to the Archduke’s contribution, Variation No. 40. He took his assignment very seriously, writing an almost three-minute piece, the heart of which is a quite impressive Bach-like fugal episode. But no matter, Beethoven determined to go it alone, and the result, as we all know, was a variations-based work equaled in the annals of music history only by Bach’s Goldberg Variations . Through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction, Beethoven takes Diabelli’s trifling theme and makes of it something transcendental.

It has been seven years now since a DVD performance of the Diabelli Variations by Piotr Anderszewski thoroughly captivated me in 28:2. Since then, a couple of other versions have come my way—one by Edmund Battersby in 29:3 and another by Daniel Shapiro in 30:4—but I keep coming back to Anderszewski for clarity and insight. Maybe it’s the visual component that helps illuminate the piece for me. That same performance is available on a standard audio-only Virgin Classics CD for those who prefer to just listen. Though I haven’t heard it, Ashkenazy’s 2007 recording—surprisingly his first ever of the Diabelli Variations —was highly praised by Lynn René Bayley in 32:2, but among others I do know and hold in high regard are Claudio Arrau’s 1985 Philips recording, Brendel’s 1988 recording, also for Philips, and Pollini’s 1998 Deutsche Grammophon recording.

Pianistically, Lewis’s Diabelli is mightily impressive. Oddly, neither the instrument nor the performance venue is cited anywhere in Harmonia Mundi’s notes or credits, but the recording has great depth and detail to it. Lewis is, of course, a Brendel disciple, so one would expect the probing insight and lucidity of vision Lewis gained from his teacher, and in these Lewis does not disappoint. But what I particularly enjoy about his reading is that he doesn’t over-intellectualize the score or treat it with over-deferential respect. Lewis plays up much of the slapstick humor in the piece, not fearing on account of its being, in hushed, reverential tones, “a great masterpiece,” to give it a few good-natured thumps.

Beethoven worked on the Diabelli Variations on and off between 1819 and 1823, dividing his attention between it and the Missa Solemnis , the last three piano sonatas, the op. 119 set of bagatelles, and completion of the Ninth Symphony. The final string quartets were yet to come between 1823 and 1826. With the exception of some miscellaneous choral pieces, the incidental music to The Ruins of Athens , and the Consecration of the House Overture, Beethoven’s output during these years slowed to a comparative trickle, but what he did produce was of surpassing significance.

Lewis’s account of the Diabelli Variations , in my opinion, joins the notables mentioned above in an exceptionally fine new recording.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Variations (33) for Piano on a Waltz by Diabelli in C major, Op. 120 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Paul Lewis (Piano)
Period: Classical 
Written: 1819-1823; Vienna, Austria 

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