Thirty-eight years old and still fabulous, Stephen Kovacevich's 1968 recording of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations sounds as good as new in this 2006 reissue. Certainly, a large part of the reason is the quality of the sound. The Dutch Philips label was one of the great classical companies of the stereo era and its piano sound was highly regarded for its clarity, warmth, and depth. But the larger part of the reason is the quality of Kovacevich's performance. A superb pianist with a subtle touch and an effortless technique, Kovacevich excelled at many composers' music, but he was a born Beethoven player: a pianist with high ideals, deep sensitivities, and a commanding interpretive personality.
In between his earliest EMI Beethoven recordings from the '60s and his much later EMI recordings of Beethoven's complete sonatas from the '90s, Kovacevich had a contract with Philips for which he recorded, among other things, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. And what a recording it was, is, and remains! Kovacevich has the wit and the lightness of touch to make the slighter variations seem more evanescently transcendent than usual and the soul and the strength of will to make the heavier variations seem even more inexorably profound than usual. Plus, Kovacevich has the intellect to make the nearly hour-long work hold together as if performed in a single breath. While most Beethoven fans will already have multiple recordings of the Diabelli Variations, Kovacevich's 1968 recording is surely worth adding to the shelf.