At last! Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven recordings for Rattle reach the Diabelli Variations


BEETHOVEN – Diabelli Variations
(33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120)
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Rattle CD RAT D070 2017

Early in 1819, Anton Diabelli, who was a music publisher in Vienna, and something of a dilettante composer, wrote a waltz, and invited all of the leading composers of the time in and around Vienna to compose a single variation on his work. Diabelli’s intention was to publish the collection as a complete set, planning to raise money for patriotic and humanitarian purposes relating to the recent Napoleonic Wars.

Included among the composers Diabelli approached were Carl Czerny, Franz Schubert, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart , Johann Peter Pixis, Simon Sechter, the Archduke Rudolf, Wenzel Tomaschek , Jan Vorisek and Ludwig Van Beethoven. The young Franz Liszt, though not included in the original list, also contributed a variation, at the insistence of his teacher, Carl Czerny.

Beethoven’s response to the invitation has received fanciful treatment at the hands of his various biographers, with the much-derided Anton Schindler at the forefront of source material for the popular legend – that the composer refused to take part in the project, deriding Diabelli’s waltz as a Schusterfleck, or “Cobbler’s patch”, and only changed his mind when Diabelli offered to pay him handsomely, whereupon Beethoven determined to show Diabelli what he could do by quickly writing not one variation, but thirty-three! It’s now more readily accepted that Beethoven from the very start was interested in the idea, straightaway planning a considerable number of variations. And, contrary to what both Schindler and Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny claimed, Beethoven did not write the complete work “in a merry freak” (Czerny’s words), but worked slowly and fitfully on his sketches, completing twenty-three of the variations by the end of 1819 before laying them aside to finish both the Missa Solemnis and the late piano sonatas, then, early in 1823, returning to the work and completing the set of thirty-three (the mind boggles at the sheer creativity of all of this!).

DIabelli subsequently published Beethoven’s work as Vol.One of a two-volume set grandly titled “Vaterländischer Künstlerverein” (Patriotic Artist’s Association), the second volume of which contained the 50 “other” variations by the remaining composers! Since then the world has all but ignored the efforts of all of these but Beethoven’s, on behalf of the publisher’s modest but fruitful little creation.

Where Schindler did seem to “get it right”, in the view of most commentators, was in his remark that the composition of this work ‘amused Beethoven to a rare degree’, that it was written ‘in a rosy mood’, and that it was ‘bubbling with unusual humour’. Alfred Brendel, whose thoughts concerning the work Michael Houstoun frequently quotes in his fascinating notes reproduced in Rattle’s booklet, elsewhere cites another commentator, Wilhelm Von Lenz, a somewhat more reliable biographer than the enthusiastic but over-imaginative Schindler, Lenz calling Beethoven “the most thoroughly initiated high priest of humour” and the variations “a satire on their theme”.

To Brendel’s assertion that the “Diabellis” are “the greatest of all piano works”, Houstoun responds that he has “no argument” with such a view, and that the only comparable work in keyboard literature could be JS Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”. Houstoun comments further that for him, the “Goldbergs” deal with spiritual certainty, whereas with Beethoven’s work, all such boundaries are challenged. He makes the analogy of Beethoven trying to “punch holes in the very fabric of the cosmos” with this work, which seems to me another way of saying that the composer is taking nothing for granted, and wants to see if there’s something else beyond normal human perception.

The Rattle booklet as well contains Houstoun’s own thoughts on each of the variations, which to me seems an invaluable insight into how the pianist views not only the music as a whole, but the function of each of its parts – we are taken into the workshop of recreation, as it were, and given the chance to experience for ourselves how the interpreter’s thoughts and words relate to his delivery of the music.

To my ears Houstoun succeeds brilliantly in “making the word flesh” so to speak. With playing less “nuanced” throughout than is the case with some pianists’ I’ve heard, he gives his listeners a strongly direct reading of the music, enabling us to get to grips with the notes quickly, rather than us having to first get to grips with the interpreter’s playing of some of them! I think he’s also suggesting that we, as listeners, have to do some work ourselves on the huge range of possibilities the music is giving to us. An active, creative kind of listening rather than a passive, “washing over one” response is required, though Beethoven’s quixotic humour certainly helps keep one in thrall!

Having applied brushstrokes of wit, charm, excitement and thoughtfulness to his realisations of most of the pieces, Houstoun, with wonderful surety, then tackles the radically different world of the final five Variations, opening up realms of intensity which transcend what we’ve so far heard. The first of the group of three C Minor pieces prepares us for what follows, as the music gradually descends to the depths of sorrow and loneliness within a sound-world resembling that of the slow movement of the “Hammerklavier”, the Bach-like No.31 described by the pianist as “a searching lament” and given the title “beacon of sorrow”. After plumbing these depths, Houstoun then electrifies us with his playing of a briliant Handelian double-fugue, NOT, as an applause-garnering conclusion, but a monumental release of energy leading to Beethoven’s greatest “surprise” of all in this work – a finale in the form of a Minuet, here patiently and sublimely realised by the pianist, in his own words, “the perfect endless ending”, the music moving like planets slowly circling the sun, with cosmic, god-like serenity.

If you already have Michael Houstoun’s Rattle set of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, you will want this disc as an essential companion – and if you don’t have any of Houstoun’s Beethoven, then what better entry-point could you have than this, arguably the pianist’s finest single Beethoven recording? In a world already replete with recorded performances of this work, Houstoun’s can proudly take its place as one of the most strongly-focused and beautifully recorded – altogether, a most satisfying issue!

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