The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski


 

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Let me start by saying that I specifically requested the opportunity to review this October, 2015 release because I was pleased and fascinated to see this representation of three major masterworks of the large variation form included in a single collection.  To my knowledge this is the first time that these three works have been represented in a single release.

Variation form is one of the staples of the composer’s arsenal of techniques for well over 400 years now but the form is most commonly used as one technique in one  of several movements of a larger work. Consequently these types of variations generally last a few minutes.  A favorite example is the variations movement from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, a set of variations on his song, “Die Forelle” (trout in English) which subsequently lends the title to the entire work for piano quintet. This variation movement runs about 7 minutes or so in performance.  The Goldberg Variations (1741) can run up to 2 hours if one includes all the repeats but generally performances take about an hour.

So, along comes Johann Sebastian Bach who is commissioned by one Count Herman Karl von Keyserling (1697-1764) to compose some music for harpsichord (the predominant keyboard instrument of the day) to be performed by his personal musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) to aid the count’s insomnia.  The original intent apparently was to have the player perform one or two of said variations as a sleep-inducing remedy upon the Count’s request.  The work, using a brief Sarabande from the Bach’s own Anna Magdalena Notebook collection of pieces, has since taken the performer’s name as the Goldberg Variations.

It is not clear when the practice of performing the work in it’s entirety began but there is little doubt that Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording for Columbia Records (now Sony Classical) placed this piece firmly in the repertoire and in the minds and hearts of musicians and the listening public.  The variations had been recorded before by Rudolf Serkin, Wanda Landowska, Claudio Arrau, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Gustav Leonhardt and Roslyn Tureck but Gould’s quirky interpretation apparently defined a moment.

In 1819 the publisher Anton Diabelli composed a waltz and sent it out to many composers of the time asking them to write a variation on his piece with the promise that the collection would then be published.  This was not an uncommon practice at the time and it is certainly a workable business plan.

Indeed Diabelli did publish a compendium of these 50 plus variations by many composers of the day (including Franz Schubert and the 11 year old Franz Liszt) as Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (the link will take you to the downloadable score of the non-Beethoven variations on the waltz) but these are largely now forgotten.  Beethoven apparently balked at the idea or simply saw a larger potential in Diabelli’s brief waltz because he chose to write not one but 33 variations on the theme which subsequently became Volume II of Diabelli’s project.

Unlike the Goldberg Variations the Diabelli Variations (1823) were intended as a concert piece to be performed in its entirety.  Like most of Beethoven’s music this piece found a place in the repertoire and remains a staple for many pianists.  It is not clear if Beethoven was familiar with Bach’s work but the gesture is certainly similar in creating a large cohesive set of variations.

In 1975 the fabulous pianist Ursula Oppens commissioned Frederic Rzewski to write a set of variations that could be a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations.  Rzewski composed the music and Oppens premiered it in 1976.  Her subsequent recording from 1979 was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Frederic Rzewski (1938- ) is a composer/performer as were Bach and Beethoven.  He is a highly virtuosic pianist and a prolific composer whose influence extends widely from his involvement in the European avant garde including his own innovative use of early electronics in his ensemble Musica Elletronica Viva with Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Allan Bryant, Carol Plantamura and John Phetteplace.

Rzewski’s variations are based on a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega called, “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido” (The People United Will Never Be Defeated), a song popular during the Chilean revolution that deposed Salvador Allende.  Unlike Bach and Beethoven, Rzewski’s music frequently takes on political associations, usually pretty explicitly as seen in this piece.

There are  36 Variations (6 groups of 6) and, like the preceding pieces are a reflection of much of the performance practice of their respective times.  Various “extended techniques” include slamming the lid of the keyboard, whistling and others are carefully integrated into this very cohesive mostly tonal work.

This piece seems to be gaining ground as familiar repertoire in the concert hall and, whether by accident or design, the inclusion of this piece along with the other two by Sony (who, you will recall released the establishing version of the Goldberg Variations) in effect is a major acknowledgement of this piece as perhaps the foremost representation of the large variation form in the 20th century much as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations represent the 18th and 19th.  Bravo, Sony!

The interest here too is the emergence of a new artist, the Russian pianist Igor Levit (1987- ). This is his third release on Sony Classical, the previous two being the 2 disc set of the Beethoven late piano sonatas and the 2 disc set of the Bach Partitas for keyboard.

I won’t go into the nuances of interpretation that distinguish Levit from other performers of these variations except to say that he has to my ears a lighter touch, more Chopin in spirit than Liszt perhaps.  His performances leave no doubt as to his virtuosity and interpretive abilities but, of course, there are always discussions of individual preferences for one or another pianist in such repertoire.  What is undeniable is his ability to grasp the larger picture and to perform these large masterpieces in such a way as to convince the listener of the integrity of each work and to hold the interest of the listener throughout the performances.  There is, in the end, no definitive recording of any music really but these are certainly candidates in the debate.

In short this is a fine set of discs, beautifully recorded, which would please anyone interested in classical music and piano music in general.  Over time one might want to hear other interpretations but these recordings are extremely satisfying and represent  their composers as well as any I’ve heard.

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3 comments on “The Big Piano Variations, a great new recording of Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski

  1. […] The piece is structured symmetrically in six sets of six variations each.  It also allows for a bit of improvisation.  But this is an eminently listeninable piece which seems rightfully to be gaining its place in the repertoire.  This is evidenced most recently in Sony’s decision to include this set of variations along with those of Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Beethoven (Diabelli Variations) in a boxed set which I reviewed here. […]

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  2. Regal D says:

    It is such a pleasure to read you. Thanks for your scholarship.

    Like

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