Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Thirty-three Variations in C major on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Op. 120 [46:37]
Polonaise in C major Op. 89 [5:05]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111 [25:26]
Julius Katchen (piano)
rec. West Hampstead (Variations and Sonata) and Kingsway Hall (Polonaise) in 1953 (Variations), 1968 (Polonaise), 1955 (Sonata)

The Diabelli Variations are often seen as a kind of equivalent of the Goldberg Variations in showing the composer’s mastery of the form and ability to make much of little musical material. In the case of Beethoven although the relationship to the original Waltz is always audible it is stretched far beyond anything a lesser composer might have thought possible. Indeed we know that this is the case as the Waltz was also the subject of interesting but frankly far inferior Variations from a group of other composers of the time. Beethoven’s set is one of the great pinnacles of the piano literature, and it is notable that of the many recordings made of them those which are demand repeated listening are from players rightly thought of primarily as wise musicians rather than as virtuosi. Julius Katchen was still in his 20s when he recorded this performance (he recorded it again in 1960) and his approach here is essentially straightforward. He plays all the notes - no mean feat in itself in this work, and generally observes Beethoven’s directions. The result is impressive but frankly left me somewhat disappointed. Somehow the overwhelming cumulative effect that other pianists manage to produce in this work is missing as is the essential overriding sense we get with Schnabel or Brendel that the composer is surprising him and us in demonstrating what unexpected musical depths can be produced from Diabelli’s almost absurdly simple tune. Having said this, I must repeat that Julius Katchen is always equal to the purely pianistic challenges of the work, and that this is by no means to be taken for granted. You may indeed prefer a performance which draws less attention to itself and which rather allows the listener to draw their own conclusions about the piece and Beethoven’s intentions. If that is the case this is certainly a recording that you should hear.

The Sonata, despite similar pianistic and interpretative difficulties, fares much better. Katchen drives the first movement forward, holding it together as a whole. The complex set of Variations that comprise the second movement also emerge as a single conception. This is a crucial requirement in this work and it is very well met here. Again he recorded it twice but I have not heard the later versions of either work. The little Polonaise was recorded long after the main works and is played with great charm and understanding.

Overall despite my reservations in respect of the Variations this is a disc worth considering if the programme - all in C major or minor! - attracts you. Although the main works were recorded over fifty years ago the recording never gets in the way of listening to the music. Decca’s presentation is poor - just a list of tracks (one for each variation or movement) and no notes on the music or the performer. A pity, as this may reduce the attraction of the disc as well as its enjoyment to those unfamiliar with either.

John Sheppard