Melvin Chen

Beethoven: Diabelli Variations

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Beethoven's 32 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120, were composed after Anton Diabelli, a publisher and minor composer, circulated his little waltz among some 50 composers, asking each to write one variation. (The little-discussed purpose of the scheme was to benefit the families of soldiers killed on the battlefield.) At first Beethoven tossed the request in the circular file. But Diabelli's little tune apparently stuck with him, and he wrote a gigantic set of 33 variations instead of just one. A nice advantage to this recording of the Diabelli Variations by pianist Melvin Chen is the inclusion, as a sort of encore, of six of the variations penned by other composers. For a fun classical-geek party game, try matching the six composers with their respective variations without looking at the booklet. The one by Liszt, even though he was just 11 at the time, is easy to pick out, and the lovely little Schubert variation looks forward to the rhythmic freedom that would revitalize the waltz in the future.

Chen's Diabelli Variations themselves emphasize one aspect of the work: its contrapuntally dense, monumental quality. Chen's playing has a hard-edged, hyper-articulated quality, and he hones the edge further with sharp contrasts. Consider the duration of his performance: even as he takes several variations at a quick clip, the work as a whole clocks in at over an hour, five or seven minutes longer than normal. In the simpler variations, Chen pounds away sforzando on individual notes, generating tension that is dissipated by succeeding passages displaying Beethoven's dense, late-period virtuosity. Where other players find subtle connections among the variations, Chen builds up an elaborate architecture from small units of shifting mood. It's an unusual sound, even persuasive, but it misses the humor and the folk-like elements that are part of the Diabelli Variations just like many other late Beethoven works. Chen's opening Diabelli waltz is harshly played, and the various moments of rather low comedy in Beethoven's score, such as his quotation of Mozart's Don Giovanni in variation 22, don't really come off. As a CD that provides valuable background on Beethoven's outlandish variation set, however, Chen's recording is worth having.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
Variations (33) on a waltz by Diabelli, for piano in C major ("Diabelli Variations"), Op. 120
1 00:57 Amazon
2 01:35 Amazon
3 00:53 Amazon
4 01:24 Amazon
5 01:06 Amazon
6 00:56 Amazon
7 01:46 Amazon
8 01:17 Amazon
9 01:35 Amazon
10 01:53 Amazon
11 00:43 Amazon
12 01:01 Amazon
13 01:04 Amazon
14 00:57 Amazon
15 06:04 Amazon
16 00:34 Amazon
17 00:58 Amazon
18 01:03 Amazon
19 01:53 Amazon
20 00:52 Amazon
21 02:26 Amazon
22 01:22 Amazon
23 00:37 Amazon
24 00:56 Amazon
25 03:40 Amazon
26 00:51 Amazon
27 01:34 Amazon
28 01:00 Amazon
29 01:10 Amazon
30 01:38 Amazon
31 01:37 Amazon
32 06:12 Amazon
33 03:11 Amazon
34 04:05 Amazon
35 01:27 Amazon
36 01:19 Amazon
37 01:15 Amazon
38 01:07 Amazon
39 01:26 Amazon
40 01:04 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick