In 2007, live recordings of Rudolf Serkin performing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations began surfacing around the world. Dedicated fans of the pianist had long revered his 1957 Marlboro Festival recording of the work issued on Columbia, but in 2007, America's Music & Arts label issued his 1954 Prades Festival recording, and then, only a few months later, England's BBC Music label issued this 1969 Royal Festival Hall recording. Although the three performances are not all that different, dedicated fans of the pianist will want to hear all of them because they're all outstanding. Both the 1954 and the 1957 performances are slightly better played than this 1969 account, but none of them lack energy and virtuosity. And while the 1969 performance may not have quite the same level of humor as the 1954, much less the 1957, it has perhaps more poetry and, in the Largo, molto expressivo, more tragedy than the earlier accounts. For listeners looking for only one Serkin Diabelli, the safest choice may still be the 1957 Columbia: coupled with Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op. 119, and his Fantasia, Op. 77, it has perhaps the best sound and the most interesting disc-mates. The 1954 Music & Arts has a splendid performance of Beethoven's Sonata, Op. 109, but far rougher sound. This 1969 BBC Music disc has reasonable sound, perhaps a bit distant but still honest, and comes coupled with a propulsive account of Mendelssohn's Prelude and Fugue, Op. 35/1, and a magisterial account of Brahms' Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119, both from 1975.
Mendelssohn: Prelude & Fugue; Brahms: 4 Piano Pieces; Beethoven: Diabelli Variations Review
by James Leonard