Paul Lewis: Beethoven - Diabelli Variations

Paul Lewis gives a raucous yet masterfully controlled rendition of Beethoven's Diabellis.

Composer: Beethoven
Repertoire:  Diabelli Variations
Artist: Paul Lewis
Rating:  4/5
Genre: Instrumental
Label: Harmonia Mundi HMC 902071

The Music: When, in 1819, music publisher Anton Diabelli invited Schubert, Czerny, Hummel, Liszt and Beethoven to write a variation on his, let’s be frank, spectacularly rubbish waltz theme, Beethoven responded with what Alfred Brendel once called ‘the greatest of all piano works.’ Demonstrating that what you do with material can be more important than the material itself, Beethoven zones inside Diabelli’s theme, transforming incidental details into grand gestures and building overarching structures out of Diabelli’s oom-pah mentality.

The Performance: And Paul Lewis tells us that the Diabellis are a set of variations like no other. He romps through the opening theme, Beethoven’s ‘sfz’ left-hand a sides articulated like raucous, tailgating trombones. Individual variations are masterfully controlled – the faux-operatic grandeur of Variation 22 sounds like it wants to slip into ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ and the tumbling passagework of No.27 moves faster than fingers ought to. But Lewis’s concept of the whole – how Beethoven seeds ideas that blossom later – makes this performance especially cogent and satisfying.

The Verdict: One star deducted because of some clangourous and shrill recorded sound, but the playing itself is pathologically intelligent and technically on-the-money. Alfred Brendel’s classic 1990 performance (Philips 426 232-2) offers the same – and a dose of whimsy.

Want More? American composer Frederic Rzewski’s 1975 The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Naxos 8.559360) is a modern-day retort to the Diabellis.