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  944 1371-6
  Beethoven: Diabelli Variations - Jan Michiels
  Beethoven: Diabelli Variations Op. 120

Jan Michiels (piano)
Track listing:
  Classical - Instrumental
Recording type:
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Reviews: 2

Site review by Polly Nomial March 31, 2007
Performance:   Sonics:  
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Review by Beagle February 10, 2010 (6 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  

There is more to the Diabelli Variations than just Opus 120….

Despite the Italian name, Anton Diabelli was born near Salzburg in 1781. He first trained for the priesthood, then defrocked for a career in music. As did many others (e.g. von Weber, Assmeyer, Wölfl), he studied with Joseph Haydn’s brother Michael. Then after a few years of light composing, plus moonlighting with publisher Steiner & Co., he teamed up with an Italian antique dealer in 1818 to form Cappi & Diabelli. The following year C&D hatched the “Fatherland Artists Union” scheme, which we now know as ‘The Diabelli Variations’. Fifty Austrian[1] composers were to write variations on a single theme – with the profits going to “widows and orphans of the Napoleonic wars” of course…. Beethoven’s student, Karl Czerny, was involved from beginning to end[2] and presumably helped persuade Ludwig to join in the scam, er, scheme. Ludwig famously asked Diabelli ‘How many variations do you have already?’ and when told that there were thirty-two, he boldly declared ‘Then I shall write thirty-three!’ much to the publisher’s alarm. Even more alarmingly, Beethoven offered his growing collection of variations 'on a well-known German tune' to publishers in London, Paris, St Petersburg and, too close for comfort, in Leipzig and Bonn – before Diabelli could publish them in Wien.

Beethoven’s contribution was impressive, as he no doubt intended – not because he was impressed by Diabelli’s theme (he called it a ‘swallow’s flight’ and worse, a ‘shoemaker’s patch’), but because the Master wished to put the other contributors in their rightful place, i.e. well beneath him. It is also obvious that Ludwig sneered and dismissed the scheme until the agreed-upon fee was too generous for him to sanely decline. So successful was Beethoven in negotiating his position in the scheme of things that his thirty-three pieces were published first and separately as Volume I in 1823, leaving the ragtag remainder consigned to Volume II published a year later.

Beethoven’s contributions range through the full spectrum of musical emotions, but to my ears without sincerity in any of them. Opus 120 is an amusing pot-boiler, fun but frivolous like his bagatelles or the variations on ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Rage for a Lost Penny’. It is difficult to argue for artistic unity in the thirty-three pieces in Volume I, beyond the fact that they share a common theme and that they are all by Beethoven; he did not write them all together but picked away at them between 1819 and 1823. The fifty variations by the fifty other composers can claim almost as much coherence. Indeed, the variations by the others are occasionally much like some Beethoven variation[3]. The theme itself exerts a pervasive sameness to any variation of it, and the Art of Variation was very much a common skill and practice.

The selections from Volume II on this disc are very intriguing, and I would have happily paid twice as much for a complete edition of all fifty (plus theme and coda) from Jan Michiels. We always get Diabelli’s Walzer theme, but the inclusion of Czerny’s bracketing Variation and Coda gives a proper context (and feeds my suspicion footnoted below). Schubert’s variation is delightfully Schubertian: delicate and wistful. More amazingly the variation by Czerny’s young (age 7-12) pupil, Franz Liszt, is distinctly Lisztian in its expansive arppegiated chords. And I quite like Sechter’s contrapuntal ‘Imitatio quasi Canon a 3 voci’, more perhaps than some of Ludwig’s offerings.

There are two SACDs of the Diabellis, Beethoven: Diabelli Variations - Jan Michiels and Beethoven: Diabelli Variations - Marco Alcantara, thus inviting comparison. I ordered Jan Michiels’ version despite the unappreciative review by Polly Nomial aka John Broggio, that finds Michiels’ pianism uneven. My own touchstone for these works is a 1964 recording of a 31 year-old Alfred Brendel channeling Beethoven’s sneering ghost… wonderful! Brendel achieves the illusion through shameless rubato and legatura, i.e. shoving and smearing the notes around on the score until they become possessed with demonic life. As every comic knows, timing is everything.

Broggio has not yet reviewed Alcantara’s disc but he appears to have fond hopes for it based upon the “disconcertingly maniacal Beethoven on the cover”. I suspect he will find Alcantara’s playing suitably consistent but not at all maniacal. I was driven to order Michiels because I found Alcantara academic, i.e. virtually humourless. Quite to the contrary, I hear a strong hint of Brendel’s youthful irreverence in Michiels – and most importantly, I am amused rather than bored.

I seldom differ with Broggio and have been guided by him to many fine discs: Ward: Consort music for five and six viols - Phantasm is playing as I write[4]. In view of John’s expertise, it is with some trepidation that I here screw up my courage and counter his disapproval with a strong recommendation of the Michiels Diabellis over those of Alcantara.

[1] Including Beethoven, fifty Austrians (see list below), plus the illustrious German pianist, Kalkbrenner, who’s participation truly launched the scheme.
[2] Karl Czerny wrote the first Variation and the summary Coda; the collection includes a Variation by his student Liszt, and another by his brother Joseph (who is credited with originating the scheme). Personally, I suspect Karl wrote the Theme.
[3] Harald Hodeige points to the similarity of Kalkbrenner’s to Beethoven’s no. 9.
[4] My wife graciously permitted me to play both Diabelli discs AGAIN last night; she complained a week ago that her dreams were all sound-tracked with Diabelli's theme. The Ward viols are playing as a palate-cleansing antidote to his insinuating 'Schusterfleck'.
Ignaz Assmeyer (1790-1862); Karl von Bocklet (1801-1881); Leopold Czapek (1780c?-1840); Joseph Czerny (1785-1842); Karl Czerny (1791-1857); Anton Diabelli (1781-1858); Moritz von Dietrichstein (1775-1864); Josef Drechsler (1782-1852); Emanuel Förster (1748-1823); Franz Freystädtler (1761-1841); Johann Gänsbacher (1778-1844); Anton Halm (1789-1872); Joachim Hoffmann (1788-1850c?); Johann Horzalka (1798-1860); Joseph Huglmann (1768-1839); Johann Hummel (1778-1837); Anselm Hüttenbrenner (1794-1868); Josef Jelinek (1758-1825); Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849); Friedrich Kanne (1778-1833); Joseph Kerzkowsky (1791-1850c?); Conradin Kreutzer (1780-1849); Eduard Freiherr von Lannoy (1787-1853); Maximilian Leidesdorf (1787-1840); Ferenc Ritter von Liszt (1811-1886); Josef Mayseder (1789-1863); Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870); Ignaz von Mosel (1772-1844); Franz Xavier Mozart (1791-1844); Rudolf von Österreich (1788-1831); Joseph Panny (1794-1838); Franz de Paula Roser (1779-); Hieronymus Payer (1787-1845); Johann Pixis (1788-1874); Wenzel Plachy (1785-1858); Gottfried Rieger (1764-1855); Philipp Riotte (1776-1856); Johann Schenk (1753-1836); Franz Schoberlechner (1797-1843); Franz Schubert (1797-1828); Simon Sechter (1788-1867); Maximilian Stadler (1748-1833); Joseph von Szalay (1806c-1870c?); Václav Tomásek (1774-1850); Michael Umlauff (1781-1842); Jan August Vitásek (1770-1839); Jan Vorísek (1791-1825); Bedrich Weber (1766-1842); Franz Weber (1790c?-1850c?); Franz Weiss (1778-1830); Carl von Winkhler (1800-1845)

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Ludwig van Beethoven - Diabelli Variations, Op. 120