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Diabelli Variations


Vladimir  Ashkenazy

Diabelli Variations


Ludwig Van Beethoven 1770-1827

33 Variations in C Major on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op. 120 (49.01)

1. Thema Vivace
All Marcia Maestoso

2. Poco allegro (:56)
3. L’istesso tempo (1:20)
4. Un poco piu vivace (1:05)
5. Allegro vivace (:51)
6. Allegro ma non troppo e serioso (1:47)
7. Un poco piu allegro (1:09)
8. Poco vivace (1:14)
9. Allegro pesante e risoluto (1:43)
10. Presto (:38)
11. Allegretto (:530
12. Un poco piu mosso (:47)
13. Vivace (1:03)
14. Grave e maestoso (3:27)
15. Presto scherzando (:33)
16. Allegro (:58)
17.                   (:59)
18. Moderato (1:11)
19. Presto (:54)
20. Andante (1:49)
21. Allegro con brio – Meno allegro (1:10)
22. Molto allegro (alla “Notte e giorno faticar” di Mozart) (:47)
23. Assai allegro (:52)
24. Fughetta: Andante (1:55)
25. Allegro (:52)
26.                  (1:03)
27. Vivace (:57)
28. Allegro (:51)
29. Adagio ma non troppo (1:15)
30. Andante, sempre cantabile (2:10)
31. Largo, molto espressivo (4:40)
32. Fuga: Allegro – Poco adagio (2:47)
33. Tempo di menuetto: Moderator (ma non tirarsi dietro) (4:00)

34. 12 Variations in A Major on the Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky’s Ballet Das Waldmadchen, WoO 71 (10:55)

Piano by Steinway & Sons
Executive Producer: Christopher Pope
Recording Producer: Andrew Cornall
Balance Engineer: Philip Siney
Recording Editor: Ian Watson
Production Co-ordinator: Joanne Baines
Recording Location: Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 29 July – 2 August 2006
This recording was monitored on B & W Loudspeakers
Introductory note and translations © 2007 Decca Music Group Limited
Booklet Editor: Fabian Watkinson for WLP Ltd
Cover photo: Rankin. Image from Rankin’s Front Row at Southbank Centre, London
Art Direction: Paul Mitchell for WLP Ltd


In 1818, the year he turned forty-eight, Beethoven was entering a period in which his music - in work after work - attained a sublimity rarely reached by any other artist. As Debussy wrote in an essay on the Ninth Symphony: "In him, there was a drive to surpass himself". His completion that year of the stupendous" Hammerklavier" Sonata, op. 106, signals that crossing.

In the following year, 1819, Anton Diabelli, eager to draw attention to his young music publishing firm of Cappi & Diabelli, sent a waltz of his own composition to fifty-one composers in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, asking each member of what he called the Patriotic Association of Artists to write one variation on it. Variations were popular and so were waltzes. Apart from Beethoven, the other composers on Diabelli's list included Czerny, Hummel, Schubert, and (a later addition) the eleven-year-old Liszt.

Born near Salzburg in 1781, Diabelli had moved to Vienna in 1803 as a teacher of piano and guitar. His business partner, Pietro Cappi, had, as junior partner to his uncle, Giovanni Cappi, published some of Beethoven's earlier sonatas, including the "Moonlight”. Cappi & Diabelli did well. Even if Diabelli had never thought of his variation project, he would have a place in history as Schubert's first and principal publisher.

As for Beethoven - who had his last piano sonatas, the Missa solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony on his mind - Diabelli was in for a wait. Beethoven also disliked the theme, which he called" a shoemaker's patch". Before long, though, in the words of the scholar Ludwig Finscher, "his displeasure became productive and he began to work, admittedly not on a variation but on 'big variations’ which was not at all what Diabelli expected and which also took a long time". When the package finally arrived it contained thirty-three variations. Diabelli understood what had fallen into his hands, and his announcement declared correctly - that Beethoven's work had but one peer: Bach's Goldberg Variations. He was even modest enough to add that the theme was not one from which such a progeny could be expected. In sum, Beethoven, who often enjoyed using skeletal material, had discovered Diabelli's waltz to be something he could work with.

Diabelli's theme is a thirty-two-bar waltz laid out in symmetrical four-bar phrases and is almost tuneless, as though both hands were playing accompaniments. Midway through each half the harmony becomes slightly adventurous. Beginning with a perky upbeat and peppered with unexpected offbeat accents, its mix of neutrality and quirkiness makes it a plastic, responsive object for Beethoven's scrutiny. He had a lifelong fascination with variations and here he works with the structure, the harmonies, and piquant details more than with the surface of the theme, keeping the melody little in evidence.

Bach's Goldberg Variations serve Beethoven as a model in this respect. But Beethoven chose not to emulate Bach's highly explicit sense of order. To quote his pupil Czerny: "Beethoven wrote these variations in a wilful mood". In contrast to Bach's steadfast move in one direction, Beethoven gives us a jolting sort of ride from the outset. The first variation is a majestic march (the progenitor of Wagner's Die Meistersinger march), which, with its grandeur of scoring and 4/4 metre, ruthlessly blots out our first and superficial impression of the waltz.

The suggestion of at least the possibility of harmonic adventure in the theme leads Beethoven to fantastic places. As early as Variation 3, Diabelli's simple excursions become real trips; thereafter, at the corresponding points, whether the mood is comic, enigmatic (Variation 20, the moment of deepest mystery in all of Beethoven's piano music), or profoundly and grandly eloquent (Variation 31, a homage to the great G minor Adagio in the Goldberg Variations), the floodgates of Beethoven's harmonic fantasy are open.

Diabelli's three-note upbeat offers endless possibilities. It comes back as a chord, as an arpeggio, as a pair of repeated notes, as a trill, and as a swirl. Some of the variations are all about the upbeat: the repeated-note Variation 5; Variation 9, the first to bring back the upbeat as Diabelli has it and which doesn't in fact manage to do anything else at all; Variation 11, which transforms it into a soft triplet turn; the explosive Variation 13, almost half of which consists of silence; or that grave sphinx, Variation 14. And how startling it is when there is no upbeat at all, an effect Beethoven holds in reserve until Variation 22 (based not only on Diabelli's waltz but also on Leporello's "Notte e giorno faticar" from Mozart's Don Giovanni) and which occurs only twice more, in Variations 23 and 29.

For Bach, the only possible ending was to play his beautiful theme again. But after the unbuttoned energy and wit, the mystery and the depth of Beethoven's changes especially after his anti-Bachian, non-linear progress - it would be impossible to go back to Diabelli's waltz. So when he has passed his high point both of expressive intensity (the three slow minor variations, 29-31) and tempestuous virtuosity (Variation 32, a fugue), he brings us home with another dance in 3/4, a minuet. Gracious and complex, it ends with music that recalls the sublime tinkle that leads us into Paradise at the end of the last sonata, Opus 111. Or it almost ends there: the tiptoeing off stage is broken into by one forte chord - on an unexpected beat, of course.

Backtrack twenty-seven years. The young Beethoven is a composer we know too little and whom, because of his gigantic later achievements, we tend to underestimate. In 1796, when Beethoven wrote his Wranitzky Variations, the ballet from which he took the theme was brand new. It is probably a folk tune: Haydn had already used it in the 1770s. As for Wranitzky, he was a Moravian by birth, fourteen years older than Beethoven, and a significant figure in Vienna's musical life, particularly admired as a conductor by both Haydn and Beethoven. The Variations make no claim to profundity, but they are full of charm, humour and invention - pianistic as well as compositional.

Michael Steinberg


(p) 2007 Decca Music Group Limited
© 2007 Decca Music Group Limited
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