Grand Pianos – 4 – Diabelli Variations

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Last week, I not only bought the DVD of Gerard Willems and Sinfonia Australis performing Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto, but also the CD of Gerard Willems playing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.  In both performances, on the DVD and CD, Mr Willems plays a Stuart & Sons grand piano.

In my post last week, about the Emperor Concerto performance, I neglected to mention the conductor – Antony Walker – an Australian now mostly working in the US.  For me, his conducting of the Sinfonia Australis orchestra was very engaging, as he so clearly enjoyed and respected the music, soloist and the orchestra.  He has his own website at www.antonywalker.com if you would like to read about him.  His list of recordings  includes the CD set of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with Gerard Willems, Sinfonia Australis and the Stuart & Sons grand piano.  But his recordings also include works as diverse as Carmina Burana; Handel arias sung by David Hobson (see note below*); Handel’s Messiah; Missa Solemnis, and many other choral works, and works with soloists.  With so many choral works to his credit, it should perhaps come as no surprise that he was the Choir Director for the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

*David Hobson is an Australian tenor.  His website is www.davidhobson.biz and  you can read a brief outline of his performance history on the About page, which includes grand opera, and Gilbert and Sullivan.  Some TV viewers might remember him more as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars several years ago, and was one of the professional singers paired with an amateur singer as a coach in the It Takes Two (Aussie version) series that mercifully only lasted 3 seasons (2006-2008).  But I remember him mostly for his performance of  The Impossible Dream at an AFL Grand Final several years ago.  It’s one of my favourite songs, and it was the best version of it I’ve ever heard.

33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, Opus 120, by Ludwig von Beethoven – commonly known as The Diabelli Variations – is a new work to me.  And it seems that I’m not alone in this.  It is apparently not a well known work, despite its importance.  For that reason I’m not going to comment on the interpretation and playing by Gerard Willems, or on the sound of the Stuart & Sons piano, until I’ve heard other versions of this work.  I have two on order from Amazon in the UK.  I’ll make a further post once the CDs arrive and I’ve had time to listen to them and from some impressions.

In thinking about this, I should remember that quite often I don’t like something on first acquaintance (be it a person, a type of food, a movie, a TV show, or a piece of music), but on further and repeated acquaintance I begin to appreciate the qualities I didn’t recognise on first meeting.  This could be the case with the Diabelli Variations, and the performance by Gerard Willems.  Some of it I liked immediately, in my first play, and some of  struck me as loud playing  just for the sake of it, with no musicality.  As I say, that was my first impression of the whole work when hearing it for the first time; and it just happened to be Gerard Willems playing it on an extended Stuart piano, because it was the piano that attracted my interest in the first place.  I was keen to take every opportunity to hear the piano.

Until the other two CDs arrive, I will give a little demonstration of the reason as to why I’ve become interested in hearing different versions of the Variations.

The following audio track is the 25th Variation as played by Gerard Willems.  He plays the variation in 65 seconds, so you might even listen twice, if the piece is new to you, to become more familiar with it (and note the tempo) before you listen to Brendel’s version.

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Now listen to the same 25th Variation played by Alfred Brendel.

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Wow!  Two very different ideas of the tempo Beethoven had in mind when he noted marked the score of the variation to be played “Allegro”.  Now perhaps you’ll understand why I’ve ordered two other Diabelli Variations from Amazon to see how they play the work (but not the Brendel, as this seems to be unavailable directly from Amazon).

Here is another version by the English pianist Paul Lewis. I like his interpretation of the Variations.

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As to the price of the Diabelli Variations on CD, here are two notes:

My Diabelli Variations by Gerard Willems cost me A$27.99 from the ABC Shop at Chadstone  Shopping Centre in Melbourne.

But check out the price of the same recording at Amazon.uk.  The 61.99 Pds converts to A$99.18.

By contrast, in Melbourne, just one of the two other Variations I ordered costs $32. To go into the city to buy it, I would not only have to devote a large part of my day to do it, but I’d also have to a pay $20 a parking fee. Total cost $52. By contrast, night I ordered that and another Variation from Amazon UK, and the total cost of the 2 CDs plus shipping was A$29.

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