CD Review: Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on Fortepiano, by Andreas Staier

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I have several recordings of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and while it is a work I have long appreciated, it wasn’t until I heard this recent disc from Andreas Staier that I really started “getting it.” It’s the most infectiously joyous recording I have of the Diabellis. At times, Staier’s performance makes me almost want to get up and dance. Don’t forget, these are variations on a waltz, though after the first, opening theme, the waltz rhythm itself is pretty much absent. But they are full of musical humor. As Alfred Brendel said in an essay Must Classical Music Be Entirely Serious?, “…Beethoven here shines as the ‘most thoroughly initiated high priest of humour’; he calls the variations ‘a satire on their theme’.” Staier, in the liner notes, calls this music “ironic” and “sarcastic.”

Another unique aspect of this recording is that it is recorded on a fortepiano, with delicious, rich sound, which brings back the music as Beethoven heard it (or would have, if his hearing were better). Finally, this disc includes not only Beethoven’s variations, but also a selection of variations from other composers. When Diabelli wished to publish a set of variations on his theme, he sent the theme to a number of composers, and while many were published, it was Beethoven who went to the extreme, creating 33 variations. This recording includes variations by Mozart, Schubert, Czerny, Hummel and others, along with Staier’s own “Introduction,” an improvisation on the theme. All of these “remixes” are at the beginning of the disc, so if you only want to hear Beethoven, you can start listening at track 13.

As I said above, Staier’s performance here is lively, aggressive, and full of joy. It is a delight to hear him play this work, and especially on this attractive copy of a Graf fortepiano. The recording is excellent; the fortepiano is very prominent and full-bodied, and there is no excess of reverb to drown its subtle sounds.

(It’s worth noting that Staier recorded this work based on the autograph manuscript (which you can see here). According to the liner notes, this manuscript had been “inaccessible” up until 2009.)

It seems that there is only one other fortepiano recording of this work by Jörg Demus (reissued by DG in August, 2012). It is odd that there are not more recordings of this great work, even on modern piano. (I assume that Ronald Brautigam will be releasing a recording of this as part of his complete Beethoven survey on fortepiano.) While most of the major pianists have recorded it – I especially like Alfred Brendel’s recordings – it doesn’t have the popularity of, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Yet it remains one of the greatest works of variations for piano, and Staier’s recording should help it get a bit more exposure.

If you’re not familiar with this work, Andreas Staier’s fortepiano recording is a great way to discover it. And if you do know the work, but on modern piano, it’s wonderful to hear it on an original instrument. Either way, this is a great recording of a great work, and one that any lover of Beethoven’s piano works should get.

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