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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120 [55:48]
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 Appassionata [23:45]
Nick van Bloss (piano)
rec. 28 October 2013 (Variations), 12 August 2014 (Sonata), Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK

For many years, I didn’t really ‘get’ the Diabelli Variations. Maybe I was resistant to the notion of automatic reverence for anything with the sacred label of ‘late Beethoven’, and the queue of authorities telling me of its great stature, topped by Brendel’s unequivocal description of the piece as “the greatest of all piano works”. Really? Thirty-three mostly very short variations, all bar one in C major or minor, on a trivial tune stretched out for nearly an hour. I saw the sheer exhaustive ingenuity, but admiration never yielded to affection, and certainly not love.

On the principle that one should always check one’s prejudices from time to time – one might discover one was wrong and that is how we grow – I would try to hear the latest recording of it by a major artist. This ranged across several of the classic recordings by Serkin, Rosen, Bishop, Brendel and Arrau. However the Variations remained elusive for me until I heard and saw Piotr Anderszewski’s filmed studio version on DVD (see review), along with his discussion of some of the aspects that enthralled him, including an illuminating sequence linking it to the Missa Solemnis. He was so absorbed by this work that I became so as well. Also Beethoven did not call them ‘variationen’ as in all his other variation sets but ‘veränderungen’ – ‘changes’ or ‘transformations’. Diabelli’s seemingly unremarkable waltz tune is ultimately transformed, and if we can stay the course, so are we. In performance it is a sense of growth over the whole span of the work that matters. The processes are ones of high intellectual abstraction, such that the theme often all but disappears, as Beethoven can do so much when crafting a whole variation from just a tiny aspect of the theme. It is the supreme demonstration in music of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

It seems that Nick van Bloss is someone who also at first didn’t ‘get’ the Variations. As he says in the booklet, he was “completely turned off” when he first heard the work, but then decided to look at the score and see “if it really was as boring as I remembered”. This version is certainly not boring but surely that of someone who has mastered the work to a degree that he now sees it whole, and he obtains that cumulative impact at which Op.120 surely aims.

The playing is impeccable, and so are such details as the amount of silence left between variations – enough so that each makes its mark but momentum is maintained. He still though lets the slower variations speak poetically, such as the long Grave number 14, or the minor key group of variations 29-31 near the close, and never rushes them to keep the work moving. They often have that withdrawn, introspective quality that we associate with the late piano music. He does not lose sight of the fact that Beethoven is sometimes just having fun, and can capture the humour and parody elements with playing of wry wit. Perhaps then it is precisely the Diabelli recording for those of us who have ever harboured doubts about it. If you still can’t always take the Diabellis but feel obliged to try them on occasion, there is always the young Olli Mustonnen on RCA, whose 46:33 timing lops nearly ten minutes off the standard length.

Many a disc of the work contains only Op.120, while others add a few late Bagatelles or other smaller pieces. Here we get a whole sonata, the Appassionata no less, which is a unique coupling as far as I am aware. This is a fairly central interpretation, free of any eccentricity. Bloss does not go for a no-holds-barred type of performance that leaves the instrument in disrepair and the audience in a state of shock. He is almost classical — and we are after all still in 1803 — inasmuch as the dolce passage (1:20) is kept in tempo, not over-indulged as a quite different lyrical second subject; it’s a version of the opening motif. There is still sufficient virtuoso fire in the manic repeated notes, demonic trills and the headlong codas of the outer movements to remind us why someone (not the composer) called this work the Appassionata. So a very good account of Op.57, but on balance the Diabelli Variations is not only the main work but also the main reason you will want to hear this disc.

There is a good booklet, with that interesting interview with the pianist and full notes on the Variations (but none on the sonata), and the usual excellent Nimbus piano sound.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Dominy Clements



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