Beethoven: Diabelli Variations (CD review)

Beth Levin, piano. Centaur CRC 3046.

Beethoven wrote his popular Diabelli Variations late in his career, around 1819-1823. The collection, more precisely labeled the Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120, is one that critics and musicians today hail as among the greatest piano works of all time. Beethoven undertook it as a project begun by composer and publisher Anton Diabelli, who sent a little waltz out to a number of composers asking them to write a variation on it, which he planned to collect and publish. Beethoven decided to write thirty-three variations rather than one, the results of which have entertained countless fans ever since.

There have been over the years any number of topflight recordings of the Diabelli Variations, including excellent stereo versions by Kovacevich (Philips), Brendel (Philips), Barenboim (DG), Kinderman (Hyperion), Frith (ASV), Donohoe (EMI), Anderszewski (Virgin), and others. Now, following her Centaur release of Beethoven's Goldberg Variations in 2008, we get pianist Beth Levin's fine new 2011 version of the Diabelli Variations to vie for our attention.

The thing is, there are so many possibilities for interpretation in the Diabelli Variations, it's hard to pick any one performance of them as the best of the lot. I mean, there are, after all, thirty-three separate pieces here, each of them going its own way after Beethoven introduces the initial theme. In other words, a pianist has a lot of room to maneuver. My own favorite remains Kovacevich, but I'm biased toward his work.

Ms. Levin takes the opening theme, marked Vivace, at a sprightly pace, though not too fast, providing a cheerful beginning to the proceedings. From there, Ms. Levin plays each succeeding variation in as much a contrasting style as possible from the heavy first variation to the lighter, more witty, more complex following ones, the dramatic ones, the exciting ones, and the quiet final ones. Beethoven appears to have been having a field day with these numbers as he playfully intersperses bits and pieces of various styles in the mix. While Ms. Levin's rendering may not always unlock the full power and utmost potential of the work as a whole, it does express a pleasingly relaxed and genial spirit.

Ms. Levin also conveys a successful sense of forward momentum as the work progresses, even though I personally tended to enjoy the quieter moments from her a tad better than the more-extroverted passages. The Variations are among the most adventurous pieces of music Beethoven wrote, some of them sounding positively modern, and Ms. Levin takes her time allowing them to unfold smoothly and naturally for maximum effect. As they should be, these are highly individual readings, imbued with an often gentle and always sincere attitude.

Recorded live on November 8, 2009, at Settlement Music School, Philadelphia, PA, the sound is miked close enough to capture detail without picking up too much audience noise (the occasional cough and wheeze aside). In fact, about the only time the audience makes us aware of their presence is when they inevitably burst into applause at the end. Otherwise, they are commendably quiet. The piano tone displays a high degree of clarity yet with a pleasant acoustic bloom around the notes, making for a warmly realistic effect.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa