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.