A Beethoven a Day: He saves the King

A Beethoven a Day: He saves the King


norman lebrecht

January 19, 2020

Welcome to the 16th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Variations for piano, opus 89, 76 etc.

In December 1958, an American label hired an unknown pianist in Vienna to record the complete solo works of Beethoven. They started with variations on random themes, before working up through the 32 sonatas and five piano concertos and, in July 1964, signing off with a few more oddments and the monumental Diabelli Variations in one of the least assuming Beethoven enterprises on record.

The pianist recalled ‘a rather dilapidated baroque mansion in Vienna’ and constant deadline pressure. He was called Alfred Brendel and the series made his name.

The inaugural variations album, released in 1968, is pick’n’mix heaven – an assortment of doodles on God Save the King and Rule Britannia, Für Elise, the Turkish March from the ‘Ruins of Athens’, a Polonaise opus opus 89, and snatches of many contemporary composers. They are scattered all over Idagio , here, here and elsewhere.

No-one does this stuff with more panache than the young Brendel. He went on, of course, to record most of Beethoven all over again on Philips and you will encounter him quite often in this series.

For a sober contrast to Brendel’s callow enthusiasm, you might try Emil Gilels , the unsmiling John Ogdon or, more animated and altogether more musical, the elegant Anne Queffelec.


The Variations opus 76 is where Beethoven first tried out the Turkish march that became an orchestral hit in his incidental music to The Ruins of Athens, opus 113-4. There is a typically sensitive recording in an Emil Gilels collection. Alfred Brendel is way too fast, Wilhelm Kempff (1936) too ponderous, Sviatoslav Richter (Moscow, 1950) positively fractious and Ronald Brautigam on fortepiano is too fragile.

Once again, it’s a French pianist Brigitte Engerer (1991) who finds just the desired delicacy. You’ll love this.


  • m l says:

    Colin Dexter is enjoying 🙂

  • Nijinsky says:

    Isn’t Beethoven getting severely depleted by now, like that stupid picture of Jesus by Akiane Kramarik that makes him look half starved and enjoying it, they’re so “nice” to him!?

    • Jan Kaznowski says:

      I think this trawl through the compositions does need a bit of structure. FOr example Monday: sonatas, Tues: chamber music, Wed : symphonic

      It’s all over the place and quite exhausting to follow.

      And does it need to be every single day of the week. With 365 days in this anniversary year, we could have the odd day break

      • Piano Lover says:

        I agree with Jan Kaznowski:I don’t want to deny the work done but it is hard to follow-no logical sense in the method.Not necessary to be numerical either(I mean no need to follow the increasing OPUS n°) but all sonats,then all quartets etc would be more enjoyable.
        Make a day break from time to time.
        This is my opinion of course-no offense.
        A belgian reader.