Gramophone guest blog

On recording Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations...and dancing around the studio

Nick van BlossThu 7th May 2015

Expect the unexpected when you go into a studio to record this masterpiece

It was the night before setting off to record Beethoven’s Herculean Diabelli Variations that the doubts hit me like a bulldozer: What am I doing! This is too risky. Whose idea was it to record this! All pianists are used to having doubts, but not usually such fundamental ones. My doubts stemmed, as most doubts will, from a long ago experience: there I was, a student at the Royal College of Music, about to hear a prominent pianist play the Diabellis. I was dying to hear a work so seldom played, one that, as far as I’d researched, stood as a pinnacle in the repertoire. I took my seat in a packed auditorium and the pianist walked on stage and started playing. And I fell asleep. I woke at about the halfway mark, listened a bit, rolled my eyes to the heavens, and then decided that sleep was the better option. It was the most spiritless, jejune work and performance ever. And that was my lasting memory of it. And it was the reason I was questioning things now. Could my performance be perceived as dull, I wondered.

So why on earth would I choose to record such a work? It happened by chance. Having recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations some years previously, I felt I should remind myself just how bad a work Diabelli was, if nothing more than to reiterate the magnificence of Goldberg. And that’s when I got the shock of my life. Sitting with the score, away from the piano, I started reading through and hearing it in my head. I became immersed and fascinated. Like a page-turner of a novel, I couldn’t wait to see how Beethoven would develop things as I read through one variation after another. It was impossibly clever writing. I found myself playing ‘spot the theme’, as I saw how the great master had somehow managed to extract mere snippets from Diabelli’s Waltz, and merge them into an almost entirely new musical language. Surely this wasn’t that wearisome piece I’d heard all those years ago? But it was. And it was anything but humdrum. I knew I needed to record it.

Nimbus Records sits in the Wye Valley and literally straddles England and Wales. It's arguably one of the finest recording venues in the UK and, in these days of uncertainty in the classical music industry, Nimbus itself remains a thriving independent label. The staff are warm and supportive. I think of them as family. And they put up with my many quirks.

As soon as I’m in the recording hall I start getting jittery. This never happens before concerts, and I get furious that it does before recording. It's probably due to having to play in an empty hall to a microphone. I just don’t feel easy. My producer, Adrian Farmer, is the overall head of Nimbus, and he sits behind a window at the back of the hall in the control room. I scuttle about on stage trying to choose a piano stool. It's no easy task. Each stool makes my playing sound different. I used to bring my old, cherished stool from home but, during my last recording, it developed an incurable creak, and many a good 'take' was ruined by a spooky, coffin-lid-opening groan, cutting through the music.

Stool chosen, I’m ready. Lots of variations to get through, and my self-imposed task here is to create something as close to how it would be if I were playing it in live performance. I’ve already discussed my ‘vision’ with Adrian - how I see the work and what kind of performance I want - so I know he’s there to comment if I stray off track. And, with my vision mentally sealed, it’s at this point I’m glad that Adrian isn't one of those producers to micromanage artists by constantly interrupting. That would interrupt the flow I need. In fact, wise advice aside, all Adrian really says is 'On...’, when it's clear we've got a good, long take. I've picked him up on this and suggested he might replace 'On' with 'That was marvellous, darling!', or something equally gushing, but, to date, he resists. 

To me, the Diabelli Variations are a kind of testament to all of Beethoven’s styles. It’s a late work, but one laced with the wit and humour of his early style, the easy warmth and pathos of his middle period, and the drama that permeates all of his output. Moreover, it encapsulates that exploratory searching, typical of late Beethoven, where he seems to reach out to another world and a new, modern, musical language.

The challenge for me is to try and make each, often short variation, an ideal entity in its own right, but to never lose sight of the bigger picture. The cumulative effect of the variations, and the impact each variation has on the one preceding and following, is something I'm acutely aware of as I play. But it's something I want any potential listener to be unaware of until the very last chord has sounded. 

With a grin on my face, I make the piano chuckle and bubble in Beethoven’s sparkling variations. Then, in an almost bi-polar change of mood, I abruptly immerse myself in the depths of Beethoven’s yearning and feel time stand still as I view the sounds coming from the piano with awe and reverence. And then I ‘struggle’ along with the master as he pushes his way forward into unchartered waters of composition, sounds coming from the piano the likes he himself could, literally, only imagine. And each of these juxtapositions of mood are as short-lived as the individual variations they are given life in. It’s a heck of a journey. 

A short lunch break, bang in the middle of the work, and I’m back to it. And then I’m almost done, as I nail the monumental and fiendish double-fugue that is the penultimate variation. Only one more variation left now, and it’s a gorgeous, velvety Minuet.  And then I stop. There’s a long silence. I hear Adrian’s voice saying. ‘On…’. But I’m stuck. 

I walk to the control room and tell Adrian I’ve forgotten how a Minuet should go. I don’t mean I don’t know what the notes are, I can play them, I mean I can’t think how to stylistically play one. I’ve played countless Minuets in my life, every pianist has. But how often do we actually play them correctly? A Minuet is a dance, a slow, graceful, ceremonious one. And it has a dip, or bow in it somewhere. And it’s that dip or bow that has me flummoxed. If there’s a dip downwards, surely it needs a slight ‘kick’? And don’t I have to represent the coming up from the dip with a lighter, more airy, sound? Or, is it the other way round? Is the down movement of said dip lighter than the coming up? Off to the piano again, and I play a bit of what’s fast becoming the vexatious Minuet. I play both ‘dip’ versions. Repeatedly. And I’m none the wiser. I feel as though I’m rubbing my tummy whilst patting my head. 

It’s been a taxing day. I’ve recorded the whole of the Diabelli Variations bar the final variation. Just as I feel a diva-like tantrum coming on, Adrian asks if I’ve ever danced a minuet. Of course I haven’t. I’m a pianist, not a dancer! And that’s when it happens: Adrian bows to me and raises his arms. With all the grace of a baby elephant, I link hands with him and start humming, in my drain like, basso profundo tones, the tune of the Minuet in question. And we dance. Badly… I dip when Adrian is up, and he dips when I’m up. My knee gives way on an unexpectedly deep dip and creaks painfully on the way up. And then Adrian steps on my foot. Then the giggles hit. But we persevere. And suddenly, bizarrely, it comes together and, for a few seconds, we’ve got it. In perfect flow we ‘Minuet’ to Beethoven’s tender tune. I am singing, hearing and living the finale of these great variations more vividly than ever before.

Invigorated, I skittle back to the piano. Feeling as though Beethoven is looking down and grinning, I play and finally feel the Minuet. My playing is settled and the notes seem to melt into each other as the rhythm gently pulsates beneath them. And as the final chord wafts into the ether, I put all destructive doubts about this sublime work to rest.

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