The devil had the best Diabelli Variations

The devil had the best Diabelli Variations


norman lebrecht

April 25, 2020

Welcome to the 63rd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Variations in C major on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli for Piano op. 120 “Diabelli Variations” (1823)

After finishing his 32nd sonata, opus 111, Beethoven was done with the pianoforte. It was, he said, ‘and always will be, an unsatisfactory instrument.’ That sounds definitive enough, but at the time he said it he was already doodling away at variations on a little dance tune that had been sent to him by a prospective publisher.

Anton Diabelli was a piano and guitar teacher who took in proofreading work for the publisher Steiner before deciding to set up on his own. He scored an instant hit in 1821 with the Erl-king ballald by Franz Schubert and went on to bolster his business by commisioning easy-to-play reductions of popular theatre songs. By way of a launch gimmick, Diabelli wrote a little waltz and sent it to 51 composers, including Schubert, Liszt and Mozart’s son Franz-Xaver, who managed to write just two variations. Beethoven declined Diabelli’s offer at first, but there was good money on the table and he had nothing much else on his mind at the time.

He planned to deliver five or six variations but, once the urge was upon him, he decided on 25, which eventually became 33, an immense architectural edifice predicated on the flimsiest of foundations. Even more remarkably, he embedded traces of the original theme in every single one of his variations without ever sounding repetitive or trivial. This is one of the most magnificent expositions ever attempted of the classical art of theme and variations. Arnold Schoenberg wrote that ‘in respect of its harmony, deserves to be called Beethoven’s most adventurous work.’ Alfred Brendel designated it ‘the greatest of all piano works.’

Diabelli’s sales pitch was pure hype: We present here to the world Variations of no ordinary type, but a great and important masterpiece worthy to be ranked with the imperishable creations of the old Classics—such a work as only Beethoven, the greatest living representative of true art—only Beethoven, and no other, can produce. The most original structures and ideas, the boldest musical idioms and harmonies are here exhausted; every pianoforte effect based on a solid technique is employed, and this work is the more interesting from the fact that it is elicited from a theme which no one would otherwise have supposed capable of a working-out of that character in which our exalted Master stands alone among his contemporaries. The splendid Fugues, Nos. 24 and 32, will astonish all friends and connoisseurs of serious style, as will Nos. 2, 6, 16, 17, 23, &c. the brilliant pianists; indeed all these variations, through the novelty of their ideas, care in working-out, and beauty in the most artful of their transitions, will entitle the work to a place beside Sebastian Bach’s famous masterpiece in the same form. We are proud to have given occasion for this composition, and have, moreover, taken all possible pains with regard to the printing to combine elegance with the utmost accuracy.


In the face of these claims, pianists have been terrified of the Diabellis. Some assume, by Freudian inference, a diabolical element in the title. Others, like the 19th century pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, look upon it as ‘a Gothic cathedral’, to be marvelled at from afar. Others still are simply daunted by the challenge of sustaining audience concentration for almost a full hour of variations. Beethoven affords some relief with dashes of humour, like the 22nd variation which Bülow analyses as a potted history of opera up to that point. Whichever way you approach the work, the Diabelli Variations is a mountain waiting to be climbed.

Artur Schnabel was so smiten by the Diabelli Variations that he sought out Beethoven’s manuscripts and published his own edition. Ever sceptical of the popular verdict, Schnabel once wrote home after playing the Diabelli Variations: ‘I am the only person here who is enjoying this, and I get the money; they pay and have to suffer.’ His 1937 Abbey Road recording is a benchmark in Beethoven history, monumental in structure, magisterial in the lessons it conveys and magnificent in his switch from solemnity to the frolics of the 22nd variation, in which he seems to have just about as much fun in a public place as was legal in London at that time. In the 23rd variation he absolutely demolishes Mozart, ridiculing the composer in a way that would not be matched until Peter Shaffer’s play ‘Amadeus’.

It is related that Schnabel, to provoke an overly enthusiatic audience, decided to play the Diabelli Variations as an encore. At the end there were only two people left in the hall. One was the young Rudolf Serkin, who went on to make the variations his calling card. Serkin’s 1958 recording has cult status, as much for its exemplary accuracy as for its summation of Beethoven’s pianism. There is always more emotion in Serkin that one hears on first acquaintance; by the third hearing, he can move you to tears. Alfred Brendel’s 1977 recording, likewise a cult object among record collectors, was taken from a live BBC performance, an astonishingly brave publication in a work of such complexity. Brendel is one of the quickest performers, getting through the set in little over 50 minutes in his various recordings, always in serene command.

Among my panel of experts, Valerio Tura in Bologna has made me relisten in wonder to the shortlived Dino Ciani, a major tour-de-force, and Amir Mandel in Tel Aviv is no less emphatic about Brendel’s achievement. While many Americans swear by Serkin, Allan Kozinn reminds me of the unflappable excellence of the British pianist Paul Lewis, a Brendel disciple.

There are many others to consider, not least Claudio Arrau, the wildly wilful Sviatoslav Richter, Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich and the prodigious Julius Katchen, another great talent cut short far too soon, in a recording that could have benefitted from a few extra decibels. The recent Igor Levit recording also feels to me a tad underpowered.

The modern pianist who best grasps the work in its entirety is, for my money (if not Schnabel’s), the Polish-Hungarian Piotr Anderszewski, From the opening run-out of Diabelli’s waltz, Anderszewski presents a structural certainty that is more symphonic than variation form. He leave you in no doubt where he’s heading, or that you are in safe hands. The second variation is a masterpiece of understatement, the third an interlude of the sweetest tenderness. Daringly quiet in the 30th variation, a kind of prelude to the conclusion, he exemplifies the mastery of time that is present in only the most gifted of artists. His final note is a statement in itself. At the end, you know you have been on a long journey, and that you have learned much along the way. I cannot fathom why Piotr Anderszewski is not one of the biggest names on today’s billboards.


  • Sol Siegel says:

    Good list. But what about Yudina?

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Is it my imagination or is there a resemblance between Diabelli’s waltz and the Arietta from Op 111?
    A case, maybe, of Beethoven having been influenced subconsciously. He was, after all, working on both pieces simultaneously.
    Just a thought…..

  • Petros Linardos says:

    That Piotr Anderszewski is not one of the biggest names on today’s billboards tells us more about the billboards. Whether one agrees or not with his interpretive choices, one cannot question his deep thinking and high pianistic finish.

  • Richard Bloesch says:

    For my money, the best version of the Diabelli Variations was played by Schnabel’s pupil (and assistant) Leonard Shure. It was issued on 78 records on the Vox label, and later reissued on lp records, also on Vox. I imagine very few people have heard it, but it was magnificent.

    • fliszt says:

      Leonard Shure recorded the Diabelli Variations 3 times, in 1946 for Vox, in 1957 for Epic, and in 1980 for Audiofon. The Vox and Epic versions can be found on YouTube. He also performed it twice in Carnegie Hall (1948 & 1967) and on his tour of Russia in 1979. Shure’s authority in this work will never be equaled.

  • Eyal Braun says:

    There are some more recommendations:

    1. Among modern pianists- Martin Helmchen’s recording is magnificent , at least as fine as any of those mentioned above

    2.Although I am not often a great admirer of fortepiano in Beethoven, Andreas Staier’s recording demands to be heard.

    3. Some great Brendel: mainly his Royal Festival Hall, 2001 recording

  • David says:

    Tonight I listened to Andras Schiff on his 1820 Brodmann, which sounds wonderful!

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    My favourite recordings of the Diabelli Variations were not named: The studio recording by Alfred Brendel in the late 80’s is unmissable, with its very good, clear, digital sound quality (much better than his poorly recorded version in the 60’s and his live 1976 recording), and it seems that Mr Brendel had enough studio time to make his point in every variation. Anatol Ugorski (extremely extravagant, Dyonisos plays piano) and Maurizio Pollini (rationality rules, Aristotle sits at the piano) are my other essential Diabellis.

    • microview says:

      When DG was promoting Ugorski, he played the piece to an audience of music journalists at Steinway’s London HQ. At the end, the Sunday Times critic shouted out “Rubbish!”.

  • Nordica says:

    My favorite is Grigori Sokolov´s recording from 2006.

    • christopher storey says:

      I am just listening to Sokolov : it is a performance full of nuance and character, and the effect overall is quite wonderful. Available on youtube , and highly recmmended by me

  • John Borstlap says:

    One can imagine Beethoven reading Diabelli’s hype with an approving smile.

    Both the type of language and its subject are long gone.

  • Harry Collier says:

    I grew up in the 1950s with the recording of grim Wilhelm Backhaus, which still sounds thoroughly “Beethoven” to me. My vote goes to Schnabel and Backhaus, in this work.

  • Piano Lover says:

    I am glad you mentioned Julius katchen’s version:my favourite above all.

  • Beckmesser says:

    The senior Serkin’s performance I know was recorded at Marlboro and you can hear crickets during some quieter moments. To me, though, his son Peter’s recording is even better, evincing astonishing clarity of mind. He makes you hear the music between the notes.

  • Micaela Bonetti says:

    “I cannot fathom why Piotr Anderszewski is not one of the biggest names on today’s billboards.”
    Maybe because billboards are deaf?

  • David John says:

    For me the greatest Beethoven player was Wilhelm Kempff. Does anyone know why he never recorded the Diabelli? He recorded nearly everything else. Did he play it in public?

  • M McAlpine says:

    Diabelli’s sales pitch was pure hype? Not at all. What he said was perfectly true. I first heard the Diabelli at a Prom as a boy when Brendel played them in the first half. Most unusual! I was fascinated by the work and have been ever since. I learned it properly from Brendel’s old Vox recording but since then have recordings by Schnabel, Richter, Kovacevich, Serkin, Anda and Anderszewski. All illuminating.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I’dxpected to see Richter’s name by now. More votes for Paul Lewis, Anderszewski, Schnabel and Backhaus. Another classic version is Mieczyslaw Horszowski’s, along with his grand “Hammerklavier”. A small man, Horszowski’s records are big. In recital at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor he resembled an elderly child, barely able to reach the pedals.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    I would say Diabelli’s own description of Beethoven’s variations is, if florid, darn good analysis and appreciation, not pure hype at all. From a commercial standpoint of sheet music sales, his heart probably sank a bit when he got THAT package delivered to him.

    Many years ago the estimable Rudolph Buchbinder recorded all the variations on Diabelli’s little trifle that had been submitted, and it was a sort of “who’s who” of the time (meaning for us, apart from some big names such as Schubert, Hummel, and Liszt, it is often more a “who’s that?” Schoberlechner?). What I remember of it is getting very tired of that theme.

    Buchbinder’s own version of the Beethoven in that set was praised at the time.

    If the work were not already so long, it could be fun for a mischievous pianist to sneak in some of those other’s variations into a performance of “the” Diabelli Variations and see if any critics call them on it. One can wonder if Beethoven himself might have looked over his pupil Archduke Rudolph’s contribution before it was submitted?

    • Peter San Diego says:

      As we learned from an SD posting a few weeks ago (that long DG video of a variety of its pianists), Buchbinder has (or is still in the midst of?) commissioned (commissioning?) new variations on the theme. Many of them were engaging; I look forward to hearing the “Diabelli Third” again — not that it will scale anything remotely like the heights of the Beethoven.

      Aside from his genius, Beethoven had the advantage of developing a full set of variations. I imagine it was difficult for some of the other composers on Diabelli’s list to come up with their best stuff when asked for just a single variation. How many of them even tried to “grow into” the work by writing several, and then choosing one to submit to the publisher?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Thanks, David Nelson, for recalling the other 50 variations that Diabelli published in a first volume, with Beethoven’s somewhat larger contribution as the second. There are familiar names: Ignaz Moscheles, Franz Xaver Mozart, Franz Liszt, Franz Shubert, Conradin Kreutzer, the Abbe Stadler, Joseph Czerny, and Karl Czerny, who also wrote the coda. Liszt’s later” Hexameron” variations pale socially beside it, though his old teacher Karl Czerny was involved in both, along with Herz, Pixis, and Thalberg, and Chopin.

    I didn’t know of Buchbinder’s recording and suspect it is better, but Doris Adam recorded the extra variations for Camerata on a brilliant, sonorous Boesendorfer.

    I agree after the first hour or two, Diabelli’s modest waltz tune wears out its welcome and was already well on the way from the start.

  • IP says:

    There is Filippo Gorini on Alpha, outstanding, and Buchbinder’s project on DG.

  • David Moran says:

    I think Kovacevich towers over all, and by some margin, and am always interested that this is not the easy case for others. His rhythmic strength is unequaled, and as w/ his first 111 the Jerry Lee Lewis variations rock like no one else’s. I am going to have to go and relisten to the others favored here.

  • Nijinsky says:

    I really don’t think Artur Schnabel interpreted the Diabelli variations in order to “demolish” Mozart, and I don’t think Beethoven wrote them for that purpose either, at all. Some people just do their own thing.

    There are all sorts of valid expressions of what art is, just because two people, or everyone, express-expresses themselves in completely different ways doesn’t mean there’s some rivalry going on, or that it’s necessary, or that happiness is the addiction of rooting for whichever side isn’t going along with such behavior but is made out to be.

  • Minutewaltz says:

    Diabelli was also a composer who wrote, among other things, a large oeuvre of piano duets – some for beginners and some for more advanced players, though none of it difficult.
    They are charming pieces and the fact they have remained in print since they were first published attests to their popularity amongst the 4 handed community.

  • Malcolm Miller says:

    When discussing Kovacevich, he made two recordings some forty years apart, the youthful career-setting 1968 one, and the 2008 Onyx CD which is wonderful. In addition to those mentioned, I also especially admire Andras Schiff on ECM, who gives illuminating comparative performances on two historic instruments, a 1921 Bechstein that belonged to Backhaus and a, 1820 Brodmann Hammerflugel. By the way Diabelli commissioned the work in 1819 and Beethoven originally composed 23 (not 25), adding in 10 more interspersed at various points, as noted by William Kinderman (OUP, 1987) who has also recorded the work several times. He is also the inspiration for a recent play “33 Variations” by Moises Kaufman, and draws unexpected connections between Diabelli’s simple waltz and the more ‘spiritual’ simplicity of the ‘Arietta’ variation theme in Op 111.

  • I fell in love with the Diabelli Variations at age 17. I have loved these variations ever since!!

  • Howard Schumann says:

    I have not heard any performance as brilliant as Richter’s, even Schnabel’s. It is a revelation.

  • Tansal says:

    My current top three are Buchbinder’s remake on DG, Kovacevich’s remake on Onyx, and Gulda’s remake on MPS.