"Fresh, rewarding performances, beautifully recorded. More please!" Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News. Nov. 3, 2007
"A most rewarding disc." Charles Timbrell, Fanfare Magazine Jan/Feb 2008
"A choice recording." Alan Becker, American Record Guide Jan/Feb 2008
Beethoven's Diabelli Variations
In June 2004 I heard from a colleague that a theater group was looking for a pianist who played Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. I had just performed them a few months earlier, so I phoned the offices of the Tectonic Theater Company in New York City, where I live. My call soon led to an audition, on a dubious upright piano in a rehearsal studio near Times Square. That was my first meeting with Moises Kaufman, the brilliant playwright and director (I Am My Own Wife, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project), and my first exposure to his obsession with Beethoven's extraordinary work, which grips the imagination as few piano pieces do. On that occasion, I played about the first third of the piece, then skipped to the fugue and the finale, and could see instantly that Moises was as enthralled as I was by the music. When I learned that his play was about Katherine, a Beethoven scholar who travels to Bonn to study the sketchbooks of the Diabelli Variations in the Beethoven Archive there, I felt a shiver of recognition: coincidentally, I had once applied for a fellowship in Germany to do just that.
Since that summer day, I have participated in two workshops in which the play, "33 Variations," took shape and now, as I write this in late summer 2007, I am about to perform in its premiere at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. My own fascination with the Diabelli, dating from my student years, has only deepened as I worked with Moises and talented actors as the play emerged from improvisation, overnight rewrites and many impassioned discussions exploring the music's enriched meaning in a theatrical context.
The Diabelli has always intrigued me more than any other set of variations; even the august "Goldberg" has not attracted me as much as this "gigantic cycle of bagatelles," as the Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon called them. These pieces, many of them only a minute or less in length, show the full range of Beethoven's difficult and complex character: his rough humor, his impatience, his rages and abrupt mood changes, his delight in parody and practical jokes, his gift for the simple, the pastoral, and the sublime.
Written in1819 and 1822, the variations show the evolution of Beethoven's thoughts about Anton Diabelli's simple two-part waltz, which he at first found almost ludicrously simple-minded and then, as the implications of its potential for variation grew on him, became an obsession. The genius outpouring that resulted wrings every bit of utility and meaning out of this scrap of theme; even the opening grace note earns several of its own variations.
The theme is not so much a waltz as it is a ländler-like dance. The melody, a tuba-like, oom-pah tune, is presented in the bass, and is accompanied by unpromising repeated chords in the right hand. These repetitions re-emerge later, transposed to the bass (Nos. 2, 14, 21) or kept in the treble (Nos. 10, 25) and eventually, in No. 32, they form one of the themes of the climatic triple fugue. After the theme's midpoint, the structure of the first 16 bars is repeated almost verbatim, in the dominant key, and ends with a resounding V-I cadence-- in all, a symmetrical, conventional structure, which Beethoven explodes immediately.
As the Beethoven scholar William Kinderman demonstrates, the sketchbooks show that the first variation to be written was No. 3, a little miracle of questioning lyricism, with an odd breaking-off in the second part, as if the composer were lost in thought; meanwhile, the left hand meanders on the first three notes of the theme. But before No. 3, we are given No. 1, which changes the theme's ¾ waltz meter to a martial 4/4, and No. 2, which gently vamps with alternating hands as Beethoven begins to explore other harmonic universes to use in the second part. There are corresponding places in almost all the variations where Beethoven confounds our expectations of a conventional modulation, and the keys he later hints at momentarily are as far from C major as can be: D minor, E minor, D-flat major, F minor, F-sharp minor and B-flat minor. My favorite destabilizing harmonic shock occurs in No. 17, where in the second half the harmony veers wildly into B minor, as if the earth had suddenly left its axis, and then as suddenly resumes its proper rotation around the dominant and tonic of C major.
The variations give us humor: the "knock-knock, who's there?" joke of No. 13; grotesquerie and parody: Nos. 21, 23, 27, 28; virtuosity: Nos. 16, 17, 21; solemnity: Nos. 20, 24; innocence and playfulness : Nos. 18, 19, 25. There is tragedy, too, in Nos. 29, 30 and 31, C-minor variations that sink from melancholy to florid despair. But the gloom is quickly banished by the energy and optimism of the No. 32 , a lengthy and powerful triple fugue in the new key of E-flat. Beethoven transforms the repeated-note accompaniment figure from the waltz into his first theme and creates a simple stepping-down-by-thirds motive for his second theme. The third theme, which runs along in rapid 16th notes, is only introduced in the last third of the variation. The final variation, No. 33, has the feeling of a coda, and is also one of the longest variations. The tension and drama of the three minor-key variations and the following fugue need time to wind down, and the decision to end the work, not with bombast, but with a graceful dance, leaves a final impression of Beethoven deep in thought. The spinning out of right-hand figuration is like the finale, also in C major, of Beethoven's last piano sonata, Op. 111, completed the same year. Diabelli's waltz has been transformed, after a demanding but exhilarating journey of 55 minutes, into an ethereal minuet.
"Ah, the countryside! The wind, the trees, the smells!" the character of Beethoven declares in Kaufman's play, "33 Variations." The songful, pastoral mood of the first movement of the Sonata in F-sharp major, completed in 1809, recalls the passionately nature-loving Beethoven on one of his long walks in the countryside, music paper and pencil in hand. The second, and final, movement is a brisk, toccata-like piece in 2/4. A rapidly repeated, two-note figure fills most of the development section. The mood remains joyous and sunny throughout, and the piece ends with a splash of good humor, a little sooner than expected
Copyright Diane Walsh 2007
Pianist DIANE WALSH regularly performs solo recitals, chamber music and concertos worldwide. In September 2007, Ms. Walsh joined the cast of 33 Variations, a new play by Tony-award laureate Moises Kaufman, in its debut production at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The play deals with Beethoven's last years and his writing of the Diabelli Variations, which Ms. Walsh performed on stage throughout the play.
Her recent performances include the Bartok Concerto No. 3 with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Strauss Burleske with the Syracuse and Delaware symphony orchestras, the Berg Kammerkonzert with Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra in New York City and Mozart Concerto No. 24 with David Zinman at the Skaneateles Festival. She has appeared with the radio symphonies of Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Berlin, the San Francisco Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony and the St. Louis Symphony, toured with the Orpheus and the St. Luke’s orchestras and soloed with orchestras in Brazil, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Russia.
Ms. Walsh has given recitals at the 92 Street Y, the Metropolitan Museum, Merkin Concert Hall and the Miller Theatre in New York City, the Kennedy Center in Washington, Orchestra Hall in Chicago, Wigmore Hall in London, the Concertgebouw’s Kleine Zaal in Amsterdam, Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad, Dvorak Hall in Prague, the Mozarteum in Salzburg and in other major cities in the United States, Canada, Venezuela, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands.
In demand as a chamber musician, she has performed at many festivals including Marlboro, Santa Fe, Bard, Appalachian Summer, Music From Salem, Eastern Shore, International Musician’s Seminar in Cornwall, and Strings in the Mountains. She is a member of the quintet La Fenice, comprised of piano quartet plus oboe.
From 1999 to 2004 Ms. Walsh was Artistic Director of the Skaneateles Festival, held annually during August in upstate New York. During her tenure she presented world-renowned performers; designed and performed in innovative chamber music programs and with chamber orchestra; increased the number of open rehearsals, children’s concerts, and master classes; and co-created and performed in theatrical events such as “An Evening with Bill Irwin” and “The Love Letters of Robert and Clara,” set to music by the Schumanns.
Her many awards include the top prizes at the Munich ARD International Piano Competition and the Salzburg International Mozart Competition. She won the Concert Artists Guild International Competition and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and was a prizewinner in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and also won that competition’s chamber music award. Ms. Walsh also won prizes in the J. S. Bach International Competition in Washington D.C., the William Kapell International Competition in Maryland and the Busoni International Competition in Italy.
Ms. Walsh has made twelve recordings for Bridge, Nonesuch, Koch, Newport, Sony, Stereophile, CRI and other labels, and she has begun recording the Schubert piano sonatas for Jonathan Digital Recordings, to be released in early 2008. She is a Steinway Artist.
"Walsh is a performer of great honesty and integrity, a pianist with superb technique that never gets abused for vainglorious displays and which is consistently and effectively applied to the service of great and lesser music alike. . . . [Beethoven’s] Sonata in E major, Op. 109, one of the sublime masterpieces in all of music, got a performance worthy of its status - lyrical, contemplative, powerful and very moving."
The Boston Globe
"Her performances merged a profound comprehension of musical purposes with rare lyric fervor. And to each work, she brought not only a lovely tone and immaculate technique, but a deep sense of personal conviction."
The Washington Post
". . . plenty of Romantic sweep and arching lyricism. . . unflagging stamina and bravura."
The New York Times
For more information please visit www.jwentworth.com and www.dianewalsh.com
Producer and engineer: Judith Sherman
Assistant engineer: Jeanne Velonis
Executive producer: Kenneth Wentworth
Recorded on May 29 and 30, 2007 at the Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
Piano by Steinway and Sons
Graphic design: Todd Sanders
Cover photo: J. Henry Fair
Beethoven sketch used by permission: Beethoven-Haus Bonn, Collection H. C. Bodmer