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Diabelli Variations: Recordings and General Discussion

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Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, Op. 120. Alfred Brendel described it as "the greatest of all piano works", Schoenberg called it Beethoven's "most adventurous work" with regard to its harmony. There have been a couple of old threads on this work, but here's a new one for new members and anyone interested or intrigued by this work. Like it, don't like it? Any general thoughts, favorite recordings, analysis, let us know!

Personally, I think it's his finest solo piano work. While not as emotionally powerful, or intimate as the late sonatas, I'm able to appreciate them more on an intellectual level. Whether Beethoven wanted to impress other contemporaries, critics, Diabelli himself, or whether he just wanted to outdo the other composers that were also invited to do variations, doesn't matter. He takes a simplistic theme and ennobles it, parodies it, endows it with humor, wit, transcendence, solemnity, homages to the great composers who came before, such as the Don Giovanni "Notte e Giorno Faticar" quotation in Variation #21. The Fughetta Andante in Variation #24 is "expressed in a voice that owes much to Bach's Goldberg Variations" (Solomon). While the variations continue to transform and deviate from the original Diabelli Waltz, a sense of unity and coherence is never lost. I don't think these variations "mean" anything or represent anything, I'm just in awe of the music, and of the fact that they are just variations but simultaneously so much more (see above).

PetrB, describing the variations, wrote, "One reason the Diabelli Variations are so admired is they start with the theme, and each variation that follows becomes a near-entity, and from theme through all the set, the material gets further and further away from both theme and original harmonization, each variation becoming a further variant of what went before. The piece "never goes home."

That departing from the theme or harmonic frame and going further and further away and never returning to it, I believe, was quite radical for the time, and may still be an outstanding feature which makes them nearly unique in the literature."

Maynard Solomon, in his essay, "The Shape Of A Journey" (Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination) puts extra emphasis on the word "shape", that is, an "upward trajectory". He writes, "Upward motion is present in virtually every variation, not surprisingly, because an upward direction governs the opening measures of the theme is implicit in the very idea of the "cobbler's patch" itself". The variations merely go from "here to there", but "here to higher".

Just like late period Beethoven, they represent both the Romantic and the Classical. Solomon writes, "They are supreme embodiments of the Romantic aphorism" yet the Classical Beethoven forces them into "larger designs... the most coherent variation cycle since Bach" ("Beyond Classicism", Solomon)

Favorite Recording:

Maurizio Pollini, of all the pianists that I've heard (Ugorski, Richter), I feel Pollini gives the set the strongest unity and a sense of inevitability, the trajectory is upward and stays on that path (which, I realize, may not be a strong point for everyone). The recording that's currently on my wish list is András Schiff, which comes with two recordings of it; one on a Fortepiano and the other on a Bechstein Grand.

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