BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations. Anderszweski (Virgin) – INKPOT

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Diabelli Variations, op.120

PIOTR ANDERSZEWSKIpiano

VIRGIN CLASSICS 5 45468-2
[63:10] full-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
“There is something to be said for a churlish temperament,” Marcel Marnat writes in the notes for this disc. Beethoven’s greatest compositions were often born into the world much like pearls from an oyster-with a little sand and considerable irritation. One particular irritant was publisher Antonio Diabelli, whose “botched piece of cobbling,” as Beethoven called the waltz in “Danube peasant” style that Diabelli sent in 1819, aroused Beethoven’s ire to extremes. But the pearl brought forth from this intense annoyance four years later was one of extraordinary price-a piece that, perhaps more than Bach’s Goldberg Variations, could be called an Everest of piano writing as well as a towering summation of its composer’s keyboard style.

The two musical jewelers who have best set this pearl and brought a luster to its many layers, to my ears, have been Sviatoslav Richer and Grigory Sokolov. Now add Piotr Anderszewski, a 30-something firebrand who made headlines during the 1990 Leeds Competition first by the stupendous level of playing early on, then by walking out halfway through his semi-final performance of Anton Weburn’s Op. 27 Variations and withdrawing from the competition because of dissatisfaction with his own playing. A triumphant Wigmore Hall recital a year later established his international reputation, one of exceptionally spirited and at times highly individualistic playing.

Anderszewski’s reading of the Diabelli Variations to some extent plays upon a “bad boy” image akin to its composer’s, with a gruffness to the playing that, while never overwhelming, does color the music with a slightly aggressive edge. It also enhances the humor inherent in much of Beethoven’s oeuvre-a broader, more burly wit than Haydn’s, but highly effective nonetheless-which the composer displays to excellent effect here. The man may have been highly bothered by Diabelli and that silly little waltz, but he was going to have some fun while showing that man how to really compose.

Too many pianists play this piece, as well as most of Beethoven’s piano works, much too seriously, losing this rough wit and comedy in the process. The better interpreters, while not letting this joking become too broad, have made sure to let us in on the joke. While Anderszewski concentrates more on the burlier aspects of Beethoven’s writing rather than playing up the wit as such, there is something about the extreme straightness of his playing that brings this humor to the fore, much as silent film director Raymond Griffith wrung hilarity from similarly echt-serious tableaux in movies such as Hands Up! Anderszewski is in on the joke-that Beethoven was, in effect, thumbing his nose at Diabelli continually while producing a masterpiece as only Beethoven could-and he lets us in on it as well, but with a sly wink from an otherwise nonchalant demeanor, which only adds to our amusement.

Take that offending waltz by Diabelli. There’s something deliciously off-kilter about how it is phrased and accented, with a sarcastic quality in the sharp power of those low bass figurations that carries over into Variation 1, Alla marcia maestosa, played here just pompously enough to transform it from ceremonious to side-splitting (but never broadly enough to slip into parody-remember, Anderzewski is playing this music more or less straight). Variation 9 is as crotchety as a grumpy old man-a self-portrait of the composer, perhaps?-and absolutely hilarious.

Anderszewski also knows when to back off and play with greater subtlty. His Variations 2 through 4 are increasingly delicate, almost transparent, while he gives each contrapuntal thread enough weight to lend color and substance without becoming heavy-fingered. Variations 5 and 6, though just as breezy overall, are shot through with a correspondingly lighter but no less engaging wit, while Variation 8 is equally filled with an almost romantic tenderness and Variation 14 with a quiet, almost noble probity and depth of soul-searching that is almost searing in its whispered intensity. The galloping humor that follows in Variation 15 is both a perfect foil and a welcome relief to this riveting introspection.

None of this characterization would really mean a thing if Anderszewski’s technique were not up to the task. Pianistically, he is staggering, with an almost x-ray clarity of articulation and an exceptionally wide range of touch and tone color of attack. He also has the ability, like Sokolov, to not only expose contrapuntal lines but also give each strand its independent character, not simply to exist separately but to interact and comment upon one another, thus enriching the musical experience still further.

Variation 13 typifies both this ability and Anderszewski’s exceptional range. Staccato passagework with the lightness and lace-like connectiveness of gold filigree and feathery high notes almost melting into the air are juxtaposed with brass-like fanfares in the bass that, while exceptionally solid in tone and well shaped, are never harsh or pounding. All these elements are separate and distinct in themselves, as though played by different pianists, each with different colors and moods, yet all are woven together into a tapestry of statement and counterstatement. As much as this is a testimony to Beethoven’s inventiveness in writing this variation, it also says a lot for Anderszewski that he pulls off this passage in the manner that he does.

This iron-clad control, along with an apparently thorough knowledge of this work’s architecture, allows Anderszewski the freedom to shape each variation as an independent entity not only musically, but in terms of the character of each variation, while preserving the overarching unity of the composition as a whole. This is a piece that the pianist has played since his student days, and both the long time he has lived with the score and his intensely personal identification with it shows in every note.

I’ve played this disc several times and have walked away each time both awed and charmed. I cannot recommend it highly enough for great playing, exceptional music-making and a rollicking good time-like the Diabelli Variations themselves, a pearl of considerable price and rarity.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS thinks the film Chocolat is the perfect cure for churlish behavior.

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xxx: 13.8.2001 Jonathan Yungkans

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