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Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
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Italian pianist Christian Leotta returns with Beethovens Diabelli Variations. These variations were composed on a waltz written by composer Anton Diabelli, who instantly recognized the novelty of their ideas, care in working-out, and beauty in the most artful of their transitions. Christian Leottas affinity for Beethoven's music has been unanimously recognized by critics, who praise ""his prodigious technique"" (The WholeNote), and ""his capability of really seizing your attention at unexpected moments"" (All Music Guide). Leotta has established a reputation as ""a pianist of the highest order: technician, musician and interpreter all at once"" (La Presse).
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The story of Beethoven's composition of his variations is well-known. (A play has been made out of it.) Scholars, musicians, and listeners disagree about the details of the work, including matters such as the nature and musical merit, if any, of Diabelli's theme and Beethoven's attitude towards it -- whether he took is seriously or as a parody. But almost everyone is in awe at this piano work of Beethoven's final compositional period. In his recent biography, "Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph"(2014) Ian Swafford considers the Diabelli Variations at length. He writes:
"There is one metaphor for the Diabellis: a string of multicolored gems. Or a parade of bagatelles, a galaxy of tiny worlds, a collection of poems on a common theme. Or portraits of Beethoven himself who contained worlds Or all of life and music in a series lf lightning flashes: here wistful, here absurd, here dancing, laughing, remembering, weeping. Improvisation and variation had always been his well-spring, his engine. In the Diabelli Variations he made these intertwined arts the substance of the music. Perhaps more than anything else, his first work on the project got his creative engine up to speed again." (p.776)
The Diabellis consist of a welter of 33 variations on Diabelli's waltz. Some are rambunctious, earthy, and funny. Some are highly serious and spiritual. Tempos and textures vary widely and differences are juxtaposed with one another. There are rapid-fire virtuoso variations and learned variations bringing to mind Bach, Handel and Mozart. Beethoven took many approaches in deriving his variations from aspects of the waltz tune. Unlike Bach's Goldberg Variations, Beethoven does not bring the theme back at the end of the work. Instead, the Diabelli's close with an ethereal, reflective minuet which takes to work to a different plane than the waltz tune with which it began. Lewis Lockwood discusses the Diabellis and the concluding variation in his biography, "Beethoven: The Music and the Life" (2003):
"The whole is crowned by simplicity, the final word in No. 33 is reserved for a freely developed 'Tempo di Menuetto', a graceful and gentle conclusion that steps back historically from the waltz era to that of the minuet, then builds up at the end to a sublime ending in C major with familiar late-Beethoven keyboard figurations interwoven with fragments from Diabelli's tune. The path of the transcendental has one again been traversed, now all the way from the Viennese ballroom through human tragedy and comedy, finally arriving once more, and by a different route, at the starry heavens." (p.394)
The pianist on this CD, Christian Liotta, attained renown as a young artist by performing the cycle of Beethoven sonatas at the age of 22 and subsequently recording the entire cycle. His recordings have received substantial critical praise. He subsequently has performed the cycle of 32 sonatas many times in series of recitals, and this CD marks his first recording of the Diabellis. I found it a convincing performance of music which may be interpreted many different ways. The theme, and many of the variations, are taken at a brusque, quick pace with little pedal. On the whole, this is a classically-conceived rather than romantic interpretation of the Diabellis. Yet each variation is individuated and performed with its own character. Liotta captures the liveliness, lightness, and humor of some of the variations and the seriousness, transformative character of other variations. The three slow variations towards the end, nos. 29 -- 31, the grave e maestoso of variation 14, and the fughetta of variation 24 all capture some of the serious, learned aspects of the work. Liotta gives an effective parody of a Mozart theme in variation 22. And the final minuet, variation 33, sums up the work and takes the music to a beautiful close.
With many recordings of the Diabelli Variations available, the test for a single recording is whether it captures the musicality and scope of the work for the listener. I found this an excellent reading of the Diabellis. It made me want to explore the work further, learn about it, and return to it again. This is a fine performance both for newcomers and for lovers of the Diabelli Variations. The CD is on the ATMA Classique label and distributed by Naxos. Naxos kindly sent me a review copy.
Total Time: 56:18
Having recorded Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, Christian Leotta now turns his attention to the Diabelli Variations. Leotta is a thoughtful and elegant pianist, with a notably warm sound. He achieves a balance in the voicing of his tone that is particularly impressive. I would recommend his 2014 YouTube concert videos of Beethoven’s 10th, 23rd, and 30th Sonatas, along with the first two movements of number three. It is particularly delightful to see the naturalness of Leotta’s rapport with the keyboard: There’s nothing showy and there are no histrionics. Leotta’s main quality as a Beethoven interpreter is patience. He lets events happen within a natural flow. In his performance of the Diabelli Variations, he establishes a continuum from the start in which the incidents occur. There is an underlying pulse uniting the entire cycle. No matter the variety of the variations, one always is aware of a personality that is Beethoven’s. One of the keys to the set for me is the 22nd Variation, where Beethoven quotes the beginning of Leporello’s opening aria from Don Giovanni: “Slaving night and day/for one whom nothing pleases.” I believe Beethoven has placed this smack in the middle of the work to define his relationship to his muse. Beethoven is a slave to his inspiration, and it is not an easy burden. Leotta gives us a Diabelli Variations that, of all Beethoven’s late works, shows us what the composer was like as a person. There is a verisimilitude to Leotta’s Diabellis, creating a unity amidst the nobility, pranksterishness, obstreperousness, passion, and profundity of the whole work.
As a performer, Leotta has to make you believe throughout the Diabellis that the individual who created the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis also composed the late bagatelles and the folk-song settings. He must explain why Beethoven would be drawn to the tavern music of Diabelli’s waltz and find in it a vehicle perhaps for self-portraiture. It goes without saying that this task requires a re-creative artist of the utmost resourcefulness. Leotta meets this challenge. Beethoven is a child of the Enlightenment; rather than compose a work to the glory of God, as Bach and Haydn would, he finds nothing astonishing in creating a work to his own glory, warts and all. It is not coincidental that Richard Strauss wrote his own self-portrait, Ein Heldenleben, to give orchestras an alternative to playing the “Eroica.” Leotta reveals Beethoven’s intent in the first variation, where a march announces the mock heroic epic that is to follow, as if the composer had read Alexander Pope. Three is a lullaby. Five has little sham fanfares, as if announcing a disreputable noble’s arrival. Leotta makes nine a sinister parody of a dance. Thirteen is a procession that keeps on being interrupted. A mock announcement of great importance occurs in 15. At Leotta’s slow tempo, 20 possesses a cosmic emptiness.
Beethoven achieves a momentary serenity in the guise of Bach in 24. Leotta plays 26 with a serendipitous elegance. Thirty-one has an unearthly sorrow, as at Christ’s crucifixion. Thirty-two begins with an imitation of a Handel concerto grosso, becoming a vehicle of transfiguration. In the final variation, Diabelli’s tavern waltz has become a halting minuet, this dance of the nobility portraying Beethoven’s now refined, if still amused, sensibility.
The CD’s sound engineering is very good, if a little brittle in fortes. Edmund Battersby made a quite special recording of the Diabellis, performing it first on fortepiano and then on a Steinway. It is fascinating to hear how the same performer achieves quite different interpretations on the two instruments. There also are fine recordings of the Diabellis by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Bernard Roberts. Alfred Brendel’s live 2001 performance is not as sharply etched technically as these, but is full of great insight. Christian Leotta’s rendition can stand beside any of these. His Beethoven is a person both absorbed by mundane existence and remote from the average individual. The Beethoven of Leotta’s Diabellis remains a source of endless fascination.