BEETHOVEN 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli • William Kinderman (piano) • ARIETTA 1 (2 CDs: 99:15) • Lecture by Kinderman on the Variations
By Paul Ingram (Fanfare)
William Kinderman’s 1994 recording of Beethoven’s op. 120 was last available on Hyperion. It was widely praised, then deleted. It’s back, courtesy of Geoffrey Merritt from Arietta records. He got to know the pianist and his family, discovered this performance, and (admirably) took it on himself to make Kinderman’s account of the Diabelli current once more. The double digipack includes a booklet with varied articles. They range from casual reminiscence to a scholarly chart illustrating the chronology of the Variations’s composition. There’s a hint of cultural crossover. Alfred Brendel’s encomium for Kinderman as a “rare bird” who combines scholarship with outstanding pianism is also reproduced. Kinderman currently holds a Chair at the University of Illinois, and plays the rest of late Beethoven too.
The second disc contains a live recording of Kinderman’s 45-minute lecture on op. 120, which he often delivers as a prelude to a complete performance. The lecture is illustrated at the piano by Kinderman himself, but with recently and separately recorded extracts, not through chunks of the 1994 version. Kinderman may be the leading academic authority on the Diabelli, right now, and his readable book, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, was just reissued by Oxford University Press. Kinderman’s thesis states that in developing his original concept (23 variations written in 1819) into the work we know (33 variations from 1823), Beethoven developed a big sectional structure that emphasizes parody, through quotation, reference, and via the strategic insertion of variations that refer to the outline of Diabelli’s theme, but in an exaggerated, sometimes humorous way. At the same time, Kinderman shows how the op. 111 Piano Sonata became drawn into the world of the Variations (and vice versa), and how, ultimately, the process of variation could have been never-ending, given the nature and level of late-Beethovenian creativity. There’s more, and you’ll need to hear Kinderman’s patient and logical lecture yourself, to pick up the thread from there. He’s written a stack of other books on music, if that’s not enough to keep you going.
As pianist, Kinderman weaves the Diabelli’s threads into a brightly colored, extravert, and carefully patterned whole, but he doesn’t squeeze it all into a comfortable, reassuring frame. “Upbeat” best describes the overall effect, and Kinderman’s achievement in sustaining that optimistic, rigorous tone for 54:53 is uncommon. The recording, from a German castle, is miked fairly closely in a sympathetic, empty room. It’s a good example of modern piano sound, and it sounds quite like a Steinway heard from a seat at the keyboard. It has bloom, depth, and resonance, but is very present. So often digital recordings fail to convey a Steinway at all. My criticism would be that the dynamic range conveyed here is not huge, and is overall a bit loud, but the same applies to the vast majority of current piano recordings. It can make performances sound heavier than they are, but it’s now the norm. Sometimes, analog mono piano sounds better, and easier to follow, than digital stereo: it’s a perverse world out here.
Should I round up the usual Diabelli suspects for a cerebral lineup? No surprises, officer, for Fanfare readers: Schnabel, Richter, Kovacevich, Brendel, Rudolf Serkin. All five are compelling, and I’d pick the first three, for a good spread of coherence and inspiration. Shop around and you could get them all for the price of one premium disc. Does Kinderman get the cigar in this company? No. The others all do better with imposing an overall shape, showing their own character, and through occasional forays into transcendental technique. You’ll hear more varied keyboard coloration from Richter, if not better integrated detail than Kinderman provides. Schnabel and Richter “float” the work’s more airy moments more successfully than does Kinderman. But there’s no last word with late Beethoven, and you need alternatives, as well as the score, if possible. I keep returning to this performance, and so, probably, will you.
If we put Kinderman up against the wall with the hard guys, things get interesting: he loses out to the pack in Variation X technically, and in XVI expressively, but manages the most joyous Presto in XIX, and ends with a Minuet that sounds a bit plain, but which sounds better after hearing some others fuss over it. He does not strive for profundity, and assumes it will come out, through his straight, bright, Beethovenian presentation. He’s trying to convey Beethoven’s character, and the work’s intellectual/aesthetic relief map, rather than his own agenda. It works best if first heard over a few variations at a time, then later across the whole set. But there is an overall vision, and it’s more comedic (as in Human Comedy, or Midsummer Night’s Dream) than pianistic, though piano virtuosity is part of the work’s gestalt. It’s not an “academic” performance. Put simply, Kinderman does not try to show he is a great pianist. That makes comparison the more interesting, but also moot. The others don’t come with the extras, or without the baggage of concert pianism. Kinderman’s tone is good, his quiet legato impressive: there’s no need to patronize him as a piano-player. That said, he’s been practicing I think, because the recent playing heard in the lecture is still more sprightly. That suggests he should also re-record the whole set, and cut loose a little more. I think the translation of his academic ideas into musical form might be more compelling now. At his best, he makes the pack sound self-engrossed, but Beethoven was blasting the piano into fresh orbit in op. 120, as well as erecting an ironically structured personal edifice. The cigar waits, on the Steinway.
Yes, this Arietta double is worth buying, especially as a gift for any young or old people you know, who are showing signs of a serious interest in music, or in Beethoven, or who might wish to play the piano. For Diabelli fans, it’s a welcome addition. The lecture is rather academically reticent in tone, but it’s very clear: this is no circus performance, yet the audience reception at the end is semi-rapturous. Check www.parasol.com/labels/arietta if this sounds appealing. If you don’t need it at all, get Kinderman’s book instead, which covers the same ground and more, but silently. Something else has happened, though, since the esteemed Editor sent this: I’m getting excited about Beethoven again. It’s happened before, and may result in a deluge of avant-jazz boxed sets to calm me down. Meanwhile I feel as a vicar friend must feel when he says “Jesus is alive!” to people, and we look askance. I realized that the Diabellis really say “Beethoven is alive!” and that he is, through all the work, but also through the specific creative processes (and spiritual essence) made manifest in op. 120. So, this is the way to live forever. Now I want to get down to nitty-gritty in op. 131 and 133, in 101, and 109. I also want to talk trills and spirituality, life and death, with William Kinderman, as well as the aspects of the Diabelli not covered in his book, etc.
Paul Ingram (Fanfare)