Ludwig van Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Opus 120 – Six Bagatelles, Opus 126
Daniel-Ben Pienaar (Piano)
Recording: Duke’s Hall of the Royal Academy of Music, London, England (September 5-6, 2011) – 67’ 32
AVIE Records #AV2260 – Booklet in English, German and French
Anton Diabelli was a smart man. Having composed several masses before the age of 20 his musical knowledge and keen business sense would move him forward in a most lucrative fashion. In Vienna Diabelli paralleled his profession as a guitar and piano teacher with learning the music publishing trade beginning as a proofreader. With continuing knowledge of the industry this soon led to his forming a partnership with Pietro Cappi, and in 1818 the publishing concern, Cappi & Diabelli, was formed. While Diabelli never ceased to compose, he also found opportunities in arranging the days’ popular tunes for the general public. The following year Diabelli wanted to find a way to further publicize Cappi & Diabelli featuring a musical selection formed under his wings. The objective was to obtain one variation from each of the most well known composers of the time based on his own “waltz.” Beethoven, being one of those contributors, went on to write a total of 33 variations which is now called the Diabelli Variations.
The 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli can be a great learning tool for any classical enthusiast, whether it be an audiophile, student or educator. Daniel-Ben Pienaar tackles this mesmerizing score without intimidation, yet he politely pulls back the reins from being overtly ebullient.
Structurally, the Variations begin with a reminiscent Rossini (i.e. ballet music from Armida) foundation Tema (Vivace). It is immediately proceeded by variegated rhythms, tempos and cycles that Pienaar restates with persuasive clarity. Anyone playing (let alone a recording in one day) this complex catalogue is nothing short of remarkable.
Influential reminders of fellow compatriots blend into Beethoven’s matrix: Liszt’s fieriness; traces of lightning speed Chopin (Variation X: Presto); Leporello’s opening arguments (“Notte e giorno faticar”) from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni; the Baroque style of Bach in a flowing yet indiscreetly parodied Variation XXIV (Fughetta: Andante). Pienaar clearly distinguishes the accentuation of differing notes from like measures, bringing greater meaning to Beethoven’s intentions. The opus’ extensive counterpoint, cycling canonic detail and hair splitting repeated notes is a feat for any professional pianist. Daniel-Ben Pienaar is an undisputable winner. Diabelli Variations is not for the faint at heart for it requires immeasurable concentration, and, at times, it lulls the listener into trance-like complacency. By Variation XXXIII it’s as if we’ve parted ways with a close friend.
The Six Bagatelles, Opus 126 came at the end of Beethoven’s career, a time when hearing loss was permanent. Despite this handicap it is amazing to envision how his creative energies unfolded on paper featuring a fluttering between major and minor keys. Particularly, N° 4 in B minor (Presto) weighs in with two note harmonic chords placing it akin to localized Provence flavoring found in Gounod’s Mireille. Daniel-Ben Pienaar succinctly portrays the impish delights and capricious tempos found in the closing N° 6 in E flat.
The native South African possesses a fine execution of such demanding music.