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Beethoven Diabelli Variations / Jorg Demus

Release Date: 08/07/2012 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4803303   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations & Jörg Demus (fp) ELOQUENCE 4803303 (2 CDs: 101:01)


This, according to the back cover, is another first-ever release on CD in the Eloquence line of reissues. It’s not the first time, however, that the variations on Diabelli’s theme by those 50 “other” composers have been recorded—Meridian released a single disc of the “others” in 2000 performed by pianist Ian Fountain—but neither the Fountain nor the current Demus is complete.

A quick exercise in arithmetic determines that all 50 variations—52 actually; see numbers 28 and 33 asterisked below—plus the initial theme and Czerny’s coda won’t fit on a single CD. It’s curious, though, that in several instances both pianists omit the same variations, leading one to wonder if there’s something about those particular numbers that argues against their inclusion. Are they lost? We can dismiss that conjecture on the ground that all were published by Diabelli, along with Beethoven’s own opus, in two volumes titled Vaterländischer Künstlerverein in 1823 and 1824. Are some of them so poorly edited, copied, or preserved that they’re unreadable, hence, unplayable? That theory goes out the window when we note that in a number of instances variations omitted by Fountain are included by Demus and vice versa. The one thing that can be said with certainty is that, at just over 50 minutes, there was room on both discs for quite a few more of the variations, which average less than two minutes apiece. In Demus’s case, however, I’m fairly certain that these recordings would originally have been made for LP, so timing would definitely have been an issue. Eloquence gives the publication and copyright date as 1976. I don’t know what the excuse could be for Fountain’s much more recent 2001 release.

Composer Pub Fountain Demus

Ignaz Assmayer 1 ¸ ¸

Carl Maria von Bocklet 2 ¸ ¸

Leopold Eustachius Czapek 3 ¸ ¸

Carl Czerny 4 ¸ ¸

Joseph Czerny 5 ¸ ¸

Moritz Graf von Dietrichstein 6

Joseph Drechsler 7 ¸ ¸

Emanuel Aloys Förster 8

Franz Jakob Freystädtler 9 ¸ ¸

Johann Baptist Gänsbacher 10 ¸

Joseph Gelinek 11 ¸

Anton Halm 12 ¸ ¸

Joachim Hoffmann 13 ¸

Johann Horzalka 14 ¸ ¸

Joseph Huglmann 15 ¸

Johann Nepomuk Hummel 16 ¸

Anselm Hüttenbrenner 17 ¸

Friedrich Kalkbrenner 18 ¸ ¸

Friedrich August Kanne 19 ¸

Joseph Kerzkowsky 20 ¸ ¸

Conradin Kreutzer 21 ¸ ¸

Eduard Baron von Lannoy 22 ¸

Maximilian Joseph Leidesdorf 23 ¸ ¸

Franz Liszt 24 ¸ ¸

Joseph Mayseder 25 ¸

Ignaz Moscheles 26 ¸ ¸

Ignaz Franz Edler von Mosel 27 ¸

Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart* 28 ¸ ¸

Joseph Panny 29 ¸

Hieronymus Payer 30

Johann Peter Pixis 31

Wenzel Plachy 32

Gottfried Rieger* 33 ¸ ¸

Philipp Jakob Riotte 34 ¸

Franz Roser 35 ¸ ¸

Johann Baptist Schenk 36

Franz Schoberlechner 37

Franz Schubert 38 ¸ ¸

Simon Sechter 39

Archduke Rudolf of Austria 40 ¸

Maximilian Stadler 41 ¸ ¸

Joseph von Szalay 42 ¸

Václav Tomá?ek 43 ¸

Michael Umlauf 44 ¸

Friedrich Dionysius Weber 45

Franz Weber 46 ¸

Carl Angelus von Winkhler 47 ¸ ¸

Franz Weiss 48

Johann Nepomuk August Wittasek 49 ¸ ¸

Jan Václav Vo?í?ek 50 ¸ ¸

Variations 28 and 33 are asterisked because both Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart (Wolfgang’s son) and Gottfried Rieger (1764–1855) supplied two variations each, but only one from each was originally published. Their second variations were published in later editions as 28a and 33a. I mention this because Fountain includes both variations, 33 and 33a, whereas, oddly, Demus includes only the later published 33a.

Another point of departure between Demus and Fountain is the order in which each pianist presents the variations. Mindful not to show favoritism to any of the 50 contributing composers, Diabelli published the variations alphabetically by composer name, as they appear in the above table. Demus plays them in that order on the disc; Fountain performs them in a seemingly random order, perhaps designed to create some logical succession of keys and/or contrasts in tempo and mood.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Demus, one of the early advocates for performing on historical instruments, plays two fortepianos in the diverse “Diabelli Variations” and a third instrument in Beethoven’s “it’s-all-by-me” contribution, which he composed on his own to avoid having his name associated with a motley crew of “mediocrities.” On the motley crew disc, Demus plays tracks 1 through 11, 16 through 23, and 28 through 33 on a grand hammerklavier by Innsbruck maker Johann Georg Gröber, believed to have been built sometime between 1815 and 1825. According to Demus’s note, the instrument was built in the old style, with five knee levers instead of pedals.

Tracks 12 through 15 and 24 through 27 are heard on an 1802 Broadwood, which also has a knee lever for the moderator—similar to the mute or practice rail found in modern upright pianos—and an isolating lever for shifting the keyboard to a due corde position.

The Beethoven disc is played entirely on an 1839 Conrad Graf, constructed to much the same specs as the composer’s last grand piano on display in the Beethoven house in Bonn. Levers are now entirely gone and the instrument has three pedals, una corda , moderator, and sustaining.

When I earlier described the 50 composers who contributed to Diabelli’s charitable cause as “mediocrities,” I did so tongue-in-cheek, for obviously, there are some famous names among them. While the majority of the variations range from routine exercises in harmony and digital velocity to vacuous banalities, a half-dozen or so manage to distinguish themselves as quite imaginative. Conradin Kreutzer’s minor-key variation (No. 21) is a real beauty that could easily have been written by Beethoven. Variation No. 24 by an 11-year-old Liszt is amazing for its harmonic daring. And typical of the composer, Schubert’s variation (No. 38) is one of those disturbingly dark pieces that vacillate between major and minor.

Demus’s choice of the Gröber contraption for 24 of the disc’s 33 tracks—will either amuse or repulse you. Just listen to the trills at the beginning of Variation No. 3. In its topmost register, it sounds like Schroeder’s toy piano in the Peanuts cartoons. And the bassoon lever, which activates a buzzing strip of paper, should have been called the buffoon lever. The Broadwood that Demus plays for the remaining tracks is a marked improvement.

As for Demus’s essaying of Beethoven’s great work, it’s okay, but I can’t say there’s anything particularly remarkable or insightful about it. Admittedly, my exposure to Demus on record is very limited. At one time, I had Demus’s recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise with Fischer-Dieskau and an LP of a Schubertiade with Elly Ameling in which Demus played perhaps the same Conrad Graf he plays on this recording. I recall not caring much for either of those recordings, and not because of the singers. Occasional reviews I’ve read of Demus’s playing have been somewhat critical of the pianist’s technique, and certain weaknesses crop up in the current recording in the form of messy trills, stodgy tempos, and block-like articulation of chords. The Conrad Graf, however, holds up well under Beethoven’s demanding writing and Demus’s pounding.

For those committed to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on period instruments, there are other newer and better versions to choose from, starting with a wonderful recording by Edmund Battersby (who I happen to interview in the current issue), reviewed back in 29:3. His is a fascinating release because it offers two complete performances of the work, one on a Graf copy, the other on a modern Steinway D. Demus’s release is fascinating too, less so for the Beethoven than for the “other” Diabelli variations. I wonder, though, has anyone recorded all 51 of them?

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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