Ludwig van Beethoven
12 Variations for Piano in A major, WoO 71

Media Review / Comparison


2012-03-31 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2013-07-16 — New standard layout applied
2014-11-01 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-06-25 — Brushed up for better readability


Introduction

This is just a short “intermezzo note” on four recordings of the 12 Variations for piano in A major on the Russian dance from the ballet “Das Waldmädchen” by Paul Wranitzky, WoO 71, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) — no detailed analysis, I didn’t even look for the score. Here are the four recordings that I listened to:


Emil Gilels, 1968

Beethoven / Dvorak: Emil Gilels / George Szell, CD cover

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano concerto Nr.5, Piano Variations; Dvorak: Symphony Nr.8

Emil Gilels, George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra

EMI Classics 5 69509 2 (2 CDs, stereo, ℗ 1968/70/96 / © 1996)

Beethoven / Dvorak: Emil Gilels / George Szell, UPC-A barcode
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This is a recording that I ran into almost by accident. I wanted to have Emil Gilels‘ recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (which was part of my vinyl collection). The only way to get this was on a double CD, along with the 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80, the variations discussed here, and the 6 variations op.76. THe CD set further includes Dvořak’s 8th Symphony in G major, op.88, and the Slavonic Dances op.46/3 and op.72/2. I’ll not discuss the other pieces on these CDs here, but just briefly mention my findings on WoO 71:

The Performance

Emil Gilels recorded these Variations in 1968 — I have mixed feelings about this particular recording. Primarily, it’s the interpretation: as much as I like Gilels, I think this is one of his weaker interpretations — the piece doesn’t really allow him to live out his big emotions, the depth of his playing, let alone the eruptive outbreaks from his early performances. Yes, there’s his depth — but as the piece doesn’t really need or require this. After all, the variations were written around 1796. The interpretation feels a bit like too big a pair of shoes on a boy’s feet (OK, that’s an exaggeration).

Then, strangely, Gilels plays the theme with arpeggiando throughout — only in the theme, but not the variations. We can only speculate that Gilels intended to “detach” the theme as not being Beethoven’s composition, in contrast to the subsequent variations, in a way deprecating the theme against the rest. One can argue that the theme is rather weak, if not poor — but then, Beethoven at least deemed it interesting enough to write 12 variations on it (and weaker themes are probably easier to vary than “strong” ones!).

Lastly, I think Gilels deserved a better tuning on that piano. Was there no time for doing this carefully? I observed this also with some of Svjatoslav Richter’s recordings. It looks like once these artists were on tour in the West, people rushed them to the nearest grand piano for a recording session…

Recommendation:I have reservations towards recommending this.
Rating:***

Vladimir Ashkenazy, 2006

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations, Ashkenazy, CD cover

Ludwig van Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations op.120; 12 Variations WoO 71

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Decca 475 8401 (stereo, ℗ / © 2007)

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations, Ashkenazy, CD, UPC-A barcode
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Vladimir Ashkenazy recorded this CD in 2006. The main piece on this CD are the Diabelli Variations, op.120, which is why I purchased the CD. I hope to return to op.120 in a future blog entry. The variations WoO 71 could be considered “merely a filler track”.

The Performance

I’m rather pleased with these variations — they are not “overcharged” and keep a simple, playful profile. Ashkenazy’s playing is clean, transparent, carefully articulated, and avoids extremes — well done!

Recommendation:A good, conventional interpretation!
Rating:****

Olli Mustonen, 1993

Beethoven: Piano Variations, Mustonen, CD cover

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano variations op. 34 (F major), op.35 (E♭ major, “Eroica” Variations), WoO 69, 70, 71, 78, 79, and 80.

Olli Mustonen, piano

Decca / iTunes download (256 kbps, Decca, ℗ 1993)

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Olli Mustonen caught my attention when I listened through recordings of the Beethoven piano concerts. So, I downloaded this CD via iTunes: it was released in 1993 and features several of Beethoven’s piano variations (see above).

The Performance

Olli Mustonen wasn’t even 16 when he recorded this. Yet, this recording has all the qualities of Mustonen’s most recent interpretations: his crystal-clear articulation, the fine agogics, detailed dynamics, the contrasts between utterly virtuosic, rapid staccato passages (in either hand), combined with fine, singing melody lines, his art in making the modern concert grand sing. It’s all very unique, i.e., there are few pianists on this planet whose performances one might (at least in some aspects / passages / features) mistake for one of Mustonen’s (or vice versa). Glenn Gould comes to mind, or maybe Andrew Tyson playing Chopin (as I remember it from the Chopin competition in Warsaw in 2010).

This is of course very different from traditional piano playing. If you approach this music with a fixed mindset, expecting traditional playing (such as Vladimir Ashkenazy’s, see above), you may not like this recording. However, there’s more to it, and that is easier to appreciate if you compare this to a performance on a period instrument, such as Ronald Brautigam’s, see below. On a modern concert grand piano, Mustonen is able to produce much of the effect (the liveliness, many of the colors and the singing sound, the percussive clarity) of a performance on period instruments — simply amazing!

Recommendation:YES!
Rating:*****

Ronald Brautigam, 2010

Beethoven: vol.11 - Eroica Variations, Brautigam — CD cover

Ludwig van Beethoven: Complete Works for Solo Piano, Volume 11: Variations WoO 71-73; Variations WoO 75-77; Variations op.35 (“Eroica”)

Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano (2010)

BIS-SACD-1673 (SACD stereo + surround, CD stereo, ℗ 2011 / © 2012)

Beethoven: vol.11 - Eroica Variations, Brautigam — CD, EAN-13 barcode
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Ronald Brautigam recorded this CD in 2010, as part 11 of his project “Beethoven, Complete Works for Solo Piano”. Apart from WoO 71, the recording also features WoO 72, 73, 75, 76, and 77, plus the variations in E♭ major, op.35 (“Eroica” Variations). WoO 71 — along with the variations WoO 72, 73, 75, 76, and 77 are played on a copy of a fortepiano by Walter & Sohn (around 1805), created by Paul McNulty in 2008 (the “Eroica” variations are played on a fortepiano after Conrad Graf, from around 1819, also by Paul McNulty).

The Performance

The Walter fortepiano (copy) used for WoO 71 is such a marvelous instrument! I don’t think this is limited to this particular copy. I’m equally fascinated by other Walther copies by Paul McNulty (used in earlier volumes in Ronald Brautigam’s Beethoven recordings). And of course this includes the original Walter instrument played by Kristian Bezuidenhout, e.g., in the recordings of Beethoven’s violin sonatas op.12/3 and op.47 (Kreutzer Sonata), together with Viktoria Mullova, or the Walter copies used by Andreas Staier (used for recordings of music by Haydn, Mozart, Dussek, Clementi). The same is true for other fortepiani from that period (e.g., Broadwood, Dulcken, such as those played by Christine Schornsheim in her Haydn sonata recordings).

It’s not simply the fact that the sound of these instruments is entirely different from the sound of a modern concert grand, due to the many differences in the construction (much lighter body, lighter strings, wooden, lighter and leather-covered hammers, etc.). The sound is so much richer, more variable! To me, it is immediately obvious that the piano compositions from the classic and pre-classic period were conceived for such instruments. Also, it is extremely hard to reproduce some aspects of these compositions on a modern piano. I think Olli Mustonen is one of the few who manage doing this to some degree.

I don’t mean to belittle Ronald Brautigam’s art in any way — his playing is fantastic, and he knows very well how to exploit the specific strengths of these instruments — but the fortepiano certainly makes a strong contribution to the overall impression created by this recording.

Recommendation:YES!
Rating:*****

Conclusion

It’s hard for me to make up my mind between Ronald Brautigam and Olli Mustonen among the above recordings. The former bears the richness in sound of the historic fortepiano, along with an impressive (but not overloaded) interpretation by the pianist. On the other hand, Mustonen’s recording lacks the sound of the period instrument. That is to a large degree compensated by the artist’s exquisite articulation: this almost makes the concert grand approach a fortepiano, at least in terms of transparency and detail. I think that one should view Mustonen’s interpretation in the context of historic performances on the fortepiano.

In short: I would not want to miss either of these two recordings! As mentioned above, if you are approaching such music with a mindset fixed on the “classic” (in the sense of “modern”) sound of a Steinway or similar concert grand, you’ll be happier with the recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy.



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