Larry Weng

Beethoven: Variations on Themes by Grétry, Paisiello, Righini, Winter

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It hardly seems possible, coming up on the 250th anniversary of Beethoven's birth, that someone could record an album's worth of his works largely unknown to all but specialists, but that's what pianist Larry Weng has accomplished here. Better still, there isn't a dull item in the bunch. All these works are WoO, Werke ohne Opuszahl (i.e., unpublished), so Beethoven himself apparently considered them second-tier. The album offers all kinds of insights into Beethoven's creative process, and there are several real gems. Much of the album consists of variations on tunes by leading operatic composers of the day, and Beethoven seems to have used the variation form as a kind of laboratory for new kinds of contrasts. Sample the Eight Variations in C major on the romance "Une fièvre brûlante" from Grétry's Richard Coeur-de-Lion, WoO 72, where the music makes a startling departure from its home tonality and material just before the end. The very early (from 1790) 24 Variations in D major on Righini's arietta "Veni amore," WoO 65, is a surprisingly ambitious work, nearly 25 minutes long. It doesn't quite have the structure to sustain its length, but it clearly shows what was coming. The Piano Sonata in C major, WoO 51, is an unfinished work, with an Allegro and an incomplete Adagio completed by Ferdinand Ries for publication in 1830. It dates from right before the first three numbered sonatas, and you can see just why Beethoven dropped it; he had already solved the problems it contains more effectively. Most delightful are the two little waltzes, WoO 84 and WoO 85, from 1824 (the year of the Ninth Symphony) and 1825, respectively. They are in the realm of the Bagatelles, Op. 126, and they could have taken the place of one of those. The pedal point inner section of WoO 84 is especially reminiscent of the B major trio from the B minor bagatelle in that set; Weng does an excellent job with these. His playing is clean, but not dull, and he captures the fun, experimental quality of Beethoven's writing here. Recommended even beyond the realm of Beethoven buffs, who will already have decided to acquire it.

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