Halfway through the sestercentennial, bicenquinquagenary, or semiquincentennial (you choose) of Beethoven’s birth, we also find ourselves in a plague year. So has anyone heard excitingly anticipated, intensive and intense all-Beethoven concerts, or read, or written, deep retrospective think-pieces on this towering composer?
Birthers could do it two years from now, when times may be no worse than now. The grasping Johann van Beethoven, in imitation of Leopold Mozart’s stage-mothering of his own wunderkind, tried for the longest time to have his prodigy be born in 1772. Indeed, through his late 20s Beethoven told friends he was unsure of his exact age (and for even longer maintained a fiction of noble birth).
Toward the other end of a musical career that blew the minds of all, and continues to today even moreso, the 48-year-old composer took under advisement a recent invitation sent out by the popular teacher, tireless composer, and new publisher Anton Diabelli. He asked 51 European composers, from boy Liszt to W.A. Mozart Jr., to write a single variation on “my please find enclosed” simple waltz. It was PR for Diabelli’s new venture, as well as a fundraiser for war victims. Everyone but the famous guy responded suitably.
Let the then-new critic at the Globe, ex-musicology professor Michael Steinberg in 1966, analyze the greatest of the results. (In the same article Steinberg noted that the work was “rarely done at concerts” even as there were to be performances over the coming days and years by Alfred Brendel, by Steinberg’s former Princeton roommate Charles Rosen, and by other noteworthies from Rudolf Serkin to Daniel Barenboim to Leonard Shure. Today it is heard regularly.) Steinberg wrote:
The “Diabelli” Variations are an amazing product of Beethoven’s profound and playful mind. The waltz Diabelli gave Beethoven and 50 other composers to vary is common, but it is by no means silly, and it has at any rate features and points of character that enabled Beethoven, by extending and developing them in 33 variations, to create the greatest of his works for solo piano. Beethoven, struggling with the “Missa solemnis” and the Ninth Symphony, resisted giving any time to what he called Diabelli’s “cobbler’s patch.” He got fascinated anyway, and had ideas for four variations whose sketches appear in a notebook together with those for the Kyrie of the Mass. Then he thought a set of seven, then 25. When the work was finished, in the spring of 1823, there were 33 “big alterations.” Something, obviously, was right about the cobbler’s patch. It is full of tiny motives of a sort that suggested to Beethoven possibilities unimaginable to others. It is sturdily, if conventionally, built, but the very plainness becomes an invitation to variation.
What or where is the tune? Is it in the right hand where, after a little swirling upbeat and the downbeat C, the next 10 notes are G? Is it in the left hand with its timpani oompah bass followed by a heavy punctuation mark? It is interesting, though, that in both hands the real activity begins with a downward step of a fourth from C to G. At any rate, it interested Beethoven, because that, with the corresponding downward fifth, D to G, four measures later, becomes the most prominent feature of his variations. It appears literally, as in the 1st, 9th, 15th, 16th, 17th variations. Still retaining its shape, it can become something as deeply mysterious as the miraculous 20th variation. In no. 24 it becomes the opening of a lyric fugue. In no. 22 it suggested to Beethoven Leporello’s “Notte e giorno faticar” from “Don Giovanni.” Var. 2 plays with the fourth by preceding the G with its neighbors A and F-sharp; no. 3 stretches it into an expressive sixth, E to G; no. 4 fills the interval with an A; no. 8 varies it by using two other notes from the same chord, G to E, as does the solemn no. 14; no. 21 stretches the fourth to an octave, whole series of them, in fact, that go bounding the length of the keyboard; no. 25 offers still another variant, E down to G.
Two sorts of things happen in Diabelli’s theme. There is the opening passage which is harmonically static, and then a sequence in which the harmonies are in motion. The second half of the theme contains a similar and parallel contrast. Much later, in var. 21, Beethoven dramatizes this contrast by writing completely different sorts of music according to which half of the theme he is varying: Allegro con brio, four-four, loud for the first part, and a slower tempo, three-four, quiet for the other part. Diabelli’s harmonies in the part where they do move are of the simplest. Beethoven, of course, does not feel obliged to stick to Diabelli’s harmonies, though he is continually stimulated by the contrast between the static half and the moving half. Already in the first variation, which starts with “Meistersinger” gestures, he substitutes tenser and more complex harmonies. As the whole work builds, he becomes bolder in his invention, providing contrasting harmonies ever more remote from the original and more mysterious in their implications.
The murmur in the left hand near the end of var. 2 foreshadows what is to come; var. 5 indulges in wild and humorous fancies; var. 8 offers new and subtle shifts of color; var. 20, one of those sublime places where Beethoven speaks of final things, is enigmatic almost beyond taking in. All this leads toward the profound utterance of the slow variations, 29 to 31, which form the climax of the set and whose harmonic miracles, especially the shifting figurations of no. 31, are an achievement that even Beethoven himself never surpassed. In var. 20 and in the slow sequence near the end, the “Diabelli” Variations contains Beethoven’s most inward music. At the same time, nothing of his is so full of playful, madly marvelous detail. Yet it is also their essential simplicity that makes them so moving — Beethoven’s joy in a fact as simple as a downward leap of a fourth, or his observation of the difference between static and moving harmony.
Some of his music will be modern, some still arcane, long after X sounds as easy as Mendelssohn and we have forgotten who Y was. But when Beethoven takes us to holy places, he is a good guide. He does not make the road easy, but he does make it sure. Given a chain of 33 variations, the large form of the “Diabelli”s must necessarily be complex, but it is not complicated. Across an astonishing variety of mood, pace, texture, harmonic intensity, with all the details cunningly placed, everything leads to the three slow variations, their minor key anticipated by the many flats in no. 28. On the way, there are clearly placed focal points: the occasional slower pieces, the ones that are made larger because their repeats are themselves varied rather than just duplicated, or the complementary pairing of no. 16 and no. 17.
It was traditional for a set of variations to place slow music before the finale, and it was common to make the finale a fugue. Beethoven does indeed follow the three slow variations with a fugue, the first variation in a major key other than the original C. The fugue, however, is not the finale. Six breathtaking measures lead us back to C. It all started from a dance, and it ends with one. Var. 33 is a Minuet as gentle and courtly as Diabelli’s waltz was rambunctious, and at the last, its rippling figurations give us a touch of that heaven we know so well from the end of Opus 111.
The landmark Diabelli performances I prefer include one prior to Steinberg’s guided tour, Rudolf Serkin 1957, musically craggy, and the rest after it: the first and very best — rhythmically strong, also probing — by Stephen Kovacevich (late 1960s); by Brendel and Rosen (1970s and 1980s), propulsively detailed and lightly crisp, respectively; recently by Paul Lewis, solid and nuanced; and even more recently a confident but in spots callow read by Igor Levit, who has received unusually strong valentines from many of the big-name critics in NYC and elsewhere. Of course there remain dozens of Diabelli recordings I have not heard.
As the 2020 Koussevitzky Artist, the English pianist Paul Lewis was scheduled to spend considerable time this summer at Tanglewood, performing Beethoven (the five concertos) and some other work. In lieu he has offered up, live-recorded a month ago from London’s modest but distinguished Wigmore Hall, a solo recital which the BSO has posted as one of their plague-summer Tanglewood events. (Click July 8; the event is listed as ending July 15.)
The performance is tremendous, authoritative, maybe better than Lewis’s masterful recording: robust, forward-moving, full of force and delicacy alike. I hereby anoint this 48-year-old pianist the successor, in Beethoven, to Stephen Kovacevich.
Lewis begins big, turns gentle, over the first half showing that he knows how to lilt, syncopate, and enunciate trills, to joke and respond, slowly declaim, roll, repose and, by var 15, to prance in its spooky fast cha-cha. Listings like this are surely of interest only if you know the piece well, preferably from having hacked at it. Although it is regularly compared with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Diabelli’s stretched and stretching variety is not much like that work, in my view, and one of the niftier things about it is that the individual short durations (well over half the variations last a minute or less) make it somewhat more akin to Bach’s Passacaglia: gripping from a sort of breathless anticipation of what pleasure is just ahead, quickly following the extremely exciting music we just heard.
Well before the middle, the theme (Brendel’s words now) “has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring. Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them. Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted.” Ending the first half (but the set is not really so divided) are the decisive 16th and 17th variations. Failure to rumble their lefthand boogie-woogieness in true, steady and strong Albert Ammons or Jerry Lee Lewis style, which means careering and cornering without the slightest pause or flagging, is my criterion for rejection. Well, Paul Lewis rocks as well as if not better than Kovacevich, who was the first to do it perfectly right over 50 years ago. (In an online masterclass on the composition, Andras Schiff whines that we should never ever use the term boogie-woogie for these pages, again showing his feeble rhythmic comprehension. Levit, for his part, takes var 16 way too fast, making it sound like a midi file.)
After the midpoint, Beethoven may grow a hair pensive — there are five variations, meditative in different degrees, whose affect is more preoccupied than the others — with even the Prestos and Allegros laughing perhaps more variously and wistfully than before. Mozart, gone for over 30 years, is channeled to jolly effect in song, about wanting to be a gentleman, a servant no more. After the slow trio of vars 29-31, the towering concluding fugue is pellucid under Lewis’s fingers, both its easy opening and the dense, fast, congested second part, before Beethoven conjures, in the last Minuet measures of his hourlong show, Haydn, a direction he was turning toward in his final years. The master’s range has astonished, then astonishes again, and again. Lewis enjoys himself in every moment, demonstrating his great affection, the deep engagement punctuated by chasing, rippling, banging in the best senses, and jangling. He plays with more power than many pianists, yet also a lighter touch and gentler stroke. And in this recital, as you will see, with most formidable technique.
It is all quite something, and I urge you to spring for it, available for the next four days. All hail, Lewis and Ludwig!
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At the Tanglewood site for the same day, July 8th, Lewis also gives (in reality from last summer) a Haydn masterclass to three Tanglewood Music Center 2019 Piano Fellows. They play a different piano sonata for him, each one doing just fine, competent and musical, like most highly accomplished pianists on their way toward a career, good performances, or better than good, such as one hears every keyboard summer.
But then Lewis diplomatically dismantles their work, showing — indirectly — how bland and shapeless, flat and routine, much of it was, by homing in with kindness on measure after measure and passage after passage. He stresses profile and musical sense everywhere he looks. See here, how this follows that, how that develops from, or into, this, how that run leads up to this important moment. “You don’t have to be lyrical here; save that for later.” He air-dances, conducts, plays and replays with dash and a kind of chiseled brio, keeping, in his suggestions, the local subordinate to the overall. He is this major Haydn pianist, which I had not known, all wit and winged play and small dramas and mildly ornery jabs and jokes.
Paul Lewis also presents as an extremely nice guy with a perfect teacherly touch.
Many, perhaps most masterclasses are like this one. But the real reason I strongly suggest sitting through it is that makes stark how good the best are, how detailed in their thinking and preparation and execution, and how unworthy and unprepared most reviewers are to comment so much of the time. I felt active shame at the vastness of the gaps in my piano and repertory knowledge. A good thing, one supposes, in this summer of straitened humbling in other so many other areas.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.