Dazzling Diabelli Variations from pianist Ya-Ting Liou at St.Andrew’s make an indelible impression

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
BEETHOVEN – Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli in C Major, Op.120
Ya Ting Liou (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 14th October, 2020

The Diabelli Variations, or to give the pieces their proper collective name, “Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli in C Major, Op.120” represent in their entirety Beethoven’s final and loftiest thoughts concerning the piano and its expressive capabilities.  It’s both characteristic and appropriate that such sublimity of invention on Beethoven’s part should have emanated from such an unprepossessing source.

Thanks to Beethoven’s somewhat free-wheeling biographer, Anton Schindler, the circumstances surrounding the composer’s involvement with this work became over the years interlaced with fanciful legend – that Beethoven scornfully dismissed Diabelli’s Waltz as “a cobbler’s patch” until the latter offered him a considerable fee for a set of variations,  that the composer was so offended at having been given such a poor theme he wrote the 33 Variations on it to rub the insult in, and that he completed the work in no less than three months.

Leaving aside Schindler’s account, we know that in 1819, the publisher, Anton Diabelli, aware of a musical public craving some escapist amusement in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, approached a wide range of composers that included Beethoven and Schubert with the idea of presenting them all with a waltz-theme of his own invention and requesting from each a variation on the theme. This was to be published as a kind of anthology,  one called Vaterländischer Künstlerverein  (The Patriotic Artist’s Club). At the end of the same year over fifty composers had completed their efforts and sent them back to Diabelli. The exception was Beethoven, who had accepted Diabelli’s invitation, and responded with not just one but a number of variations, quickly completing twenty-three, but then setting aside the work for the Missa Solemnis (he had interrupted work on this for the Variations!) and the late piano sonatas.

Early In 1823, Beethoven finished the set, completing thirty-three variations all told, possibly to advance his own efforts with the previously-published 32 Variations in C Minor, or perhaps even having in mind JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, with its thirty-two pieces. Whatever the case, the work was published by Diabelli in June of that same year, the publisher actually drawing attention to Bach’s work thus:  –  “……indeed all these variations, through the novelty of their ideas, care in working-out, and beauty in the most artful of their transitions, will entitle the work to a place beside Sebastian Bach’s famous masterpiece in the same form.”

To deal with a work of such proportions, both performers and commentators have proposed various kinds of “signpostings” which give some kind of direction to the adventurous listener, ears awash with the sheer extent of the composer’s inventiveness. Today’s performer, Ya-Ting Liou, suggested in her programme note that the work might be thought of as in two parts, the division marked by the cataclysmic Variation 17 (the renowned pianist Alfred Brendel, famous for his performances of the work, called both this and the previous Variation “Triumph”), a sequence characterised by great energy, physicality and exuberance, and one whose aftermath certainly appeared as though the music had suddenly set its sights elsewhere, the following Variation a dialogue or game perhaps between friends or lovers or philosophers, with the exchanges opening up for us enticing realms of equivocal possibility.

But the work responds to a myriad of listening approaches for both listener and performer, whether “large-scale” or “of the moment” – and from the very beginning Ya Ting’s unhurried, detailed and intensely cumulative approach had the effect for me of “gathering in” both broad brush-strokes and detail, so that while one was aware of the contrasts being wrought between each of the variations, one’s concentration on the overall flow was never unduly disturbed. I thought her abilities as a storyteller were outstanding in this respect – whatever the felicitation of the detail, or the sharpness of the contrasts, we never lost the sense of an inexorable forward movement, from realm to wondrous realm glorying in Beethoven’s invention! If one was occasionally tempted to dwell on the particular character of a fragment or a sequence, one was then “taken” in thrall to the next felicitation, at times almost by osmotic means, completely without self-consciousness!

To speak of “highlights” in such a performance of such a work would be to denigrate Ya Ting’s achievement as a whole – rather I prefer to cite certain moments as enjoyable for reasons tailored to each moment’s particular “character”……thus the first of the Variations, the Alla Marcia Maestoso was rightly made more of a “beginning” than the theme at the work’s opening, spacious, processional and attention-grabbing, with orchestral-like contrasting dynamics in places, an almost Musorgsky-like “Promenade” moment with which to commence the journey proper. By contrast, the dreamy, poetic, very “vocal” line of the third L’istesso Tempo Variation made for a piquantly quixotic commentary, with its discursive bass notes trailing off into thoughtful silences, a discourse which the next variation Un poco piu vivace turned into a lovely series of arched “overthrowings” of festooning detail.

One of the abiding qualities of the playing seemed to me to be the pianist’s quality of taking the music “with her” in those variations requiring an abundance of tone rather than merely “driving” it all forwards – thus in Variation 14’s  Grave e maestoso we all were made to “feel” the tread of those broad, resonant steps which seemed to resemble a large ship’s progress through water, a process that seemed like the unfolding of a vision, the piece’s second half delivered with infinite patience and long-breathed surety – quite a journey! By contrast, Ya-Ting was fully engaged in an entirely different way in the “virtuoso roar” of those two Variations, Nos 16 and 17, which for her signalled a “halfway-point” in the work, the strength of each of the hands by turns given a workout in the two pieces, the results an exhilarating engagement with some strong and scintillating music-making.

The work’s second half contained the music the composer penned after returning to his work to write ten more variations to add to the twenty-three he had written in 1819. No.20’s sudden deep bass, following as it does immediately after the excitingly  festive Presto of No.19 was a solemn Andante, one of the most profound of the set, and which commentator Donald Francis Tovey described as “awe-inspiring”. Here, La-Ting seemed to lose herself in thought, the music taking our sensibilities to “different realms” in a wondrously spontaneous-sounding recreation of remarkable stillness. Of course, Beethoven was “setting us up” for the explosion which followed with Variation 21’s Allegro con brio, sudden, incisive trills in the right hand set against tub-thumping chords in the left hand, interspersed with slower triple time sequences. The hand-passing-over jumps produced some inaccurate landings which merely added to the excitement – who dares, wins!

Drollery took over from rumbustiousness in the next Variation, No. 22, none other than a setting of part of  Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Leoporello’s opening aria “Notte e giorno faticar” (Night and Day I work), music which shared the same two opening notes with Diabelli’s theme. Another explosive contrast then took place with the following Assai allegro, Variation 23, the pianist’s fingers all over the keyboard, generating incredible momentum, while again, maintaining a coherence of inspiration amid the music’s startling contrasts. Obviously I don’t have the space in the course of a single review to do full justice to this artist’s treatment of so many profoundly insightful moments of through-line amid contrast throughout this work – suffice to say that by some alchemic means she took us with her on what seemed like a seamlessly-flowing journey to the apex of the music’s realms of expression, the concluding variations inspired firstly by Bach, then Handel and finally Mozart, the last of which seemed, in  Tovey’s words, like “a peaceful return home”.

To have such an exposition of genius laid out for us so beautifully and far-reachingly in the course of an otherwise ordinary lunch-hour’s duration seemed to me like a miracle – a gift from life’s variety and inexhaustible capacity to inspire and bring joy, brought to us through the sensibilities and skills of a remarkable pianist.


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